The Holy Innocents: Feast of the Noviciate

Silverstream Priory’s Six Novices with their Father Zelator

Yesterday, the feast of the Holy Innocents was, according to a Benedictine tradition, one of the feasts of the noviciate. The brothers of the noviciate carried out the liturgical functions of the hebdomadarius and the cantors. And our priest novice, Brother Gregory, offered the Conventual Mass and preached the homily. Here is the text of Brother Gregory’s homily.

Thou hast made the lips of children, of infants at the breast, vocal with praise (Ps 8.3).

‘I adore Thee for those who have never adored Thee, and for those who will never know the happiness of praising Thee.’ We say those words every day for most of the year, and they are words that since my arrival I have not been able to get past; I hope I never will. But imagine it—imagine what a life would be entirely without the praises of God in it. Now I will not try to describe what that would be like, mostly because it is so difficult to imagine. But it has at least sharpened my own adoration to think about those souls for whom we say that we pray: the men & women & children who have never and who will never avert the gaze of their hearts to God in a look of praise, blessing, and love. Abyssus abyssum invocat[1] .

I bring this up because I think the grace of today’s strange festival is adoration. It is a strange festival because the Massacre of the Innocents is, from a purely natural attitude, probably better forgotten; forgotten or overlooked as just one more episode in the violent procession of human history. Today is about how a petty tyrant snuffed out the lives of who knows how many infant boys. What is worth saying about these little lives that were truncated before they even began? Again, from a natural perspective, today is a tragedy, not a festival.

As usual, however, the sacred liturgy knows better. How does Mother Church see today? After all, her eyes see supernaturally, on account of the gift of faith. In a word, she teaches us that these innocents are also adorers; the Introit, Epistle,[2] and Alleluia prove it. The introit: ‘Thou has made the lips of children, of infants at the breast, vocal with praise.’ The Epistle: ‘And I heard a sound from heaven, louder than water in full flood, or heavy thunder. This sound which I heard seemed to come from harpers, playing on their harps, as they sang a new song.’ And the Alleluia: ‘Laudate pueri Dominum.’ That is the spiritual portrait we are given of these little martyrs and it is why, then, we keep festival in their friendship and honour. 

But these little ones are also a type & figure of the monastic life. Indeed, we marvel at them because, entirely unable to make an act of the will or otherwise to have any custody over their persons, they witness to Christ. According to our Holy Father Benedict, our posture is the same: ‘monks should not even have their bodies or their wills at their disposal.’[3] Or consider the collect: the Holy Innocents ‘confessed not by speaking but by dying.’ The monk’s life is a silent, mystical death; the ‘ennothingment’ of our Mother Mectilde.

We conclude where we began: ‘I adore Thee for those who have never adored Thee, and for those who will never know the happiness of praising Thee.’ So we ask the Holy Innocents to aid us. We have not their innocence; but we may, like them, adore. We see that their happiness lies in their adoration before God, and so does ours. And if all this be true, it is a striking commentary on the words chiselled in stone beneath our statue of Saint Thérèse: Nisi efficiamini sicut parvuli.[4]

[1] Ps 41:8.

[2] Apoc 14:1-5.

[3] Regula, 33.

[4] Mt 18:3; ‘Unless you become like unto little children.’