When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. - Matthew 2:16They were only trying to do the right thing. They saw the star, some astrological phenomenon, a sign. They discerned its meaning as best they could. They responded to the summons revealed in the sign. They conferred with the local authority. They spoke honestly of what they knew. They completed their journey with the worship of the new king. They even went so far as to heed the warning of the dream, avoiding making any further revelation to Herod as they departed.
As a consequence of their actions, Herod, in a fury, orders the slaughter of the innocents of Bethlehem.
How might I have felt as one of the Magi, had I heard about this massacre? I might have believed, It was my fault. If we had not gone to Herod...
Maybe I would blame God: Why the second dream, the dream to flee, and not a first dream, a dream warning me not to go to Herod in the first place? Why send me to Bethlehem if this, this, was to be the consequence?
Why is Jesus alone spared and those other children allowed to perish?
Of course, this tale, historical or not, is a loud echo of the Passover narrative of Exodus 12, a story in which God allows the deaths of the holy innocents of Egypt.
And it is a sad echo of Damascus, Syria, and rural Kenya and Newtown, Connecticut, which so recently witnessed the slaughter of more holy innocents.
The questions today are the same questions that those foreign astrologers might have asked: Why, O God? Is there something else we might have done?
Those two burning questions haunt this world broken by sin. Why does God allow evil to persist? What are we called to do, as the Body of Christ, in the wake of evil?
When I was younger, I believed that good actions necessarily would lead to positive consequences. If I did right, I and others would be blessed, by which I meant we would receive a happy reward. One the first lessons of my adulthood was the realization that doing God's will doesn't necessarily lead to temporal happiness. Quite the contrary. The Biblical view is clear: Following God's will perfectly leads to crucifixion on a Roman cross.
What's more, doing God's will doesn't necessarily look to the world like doing the right thing. Could it look like revealing the fulfillment of a prophecy to an evil king? Like being the only survivor amidst the wreckage?
Our lives go on in peace while others suffer. I have a happy Christmas with my children while other parents bury theirs.
All we know is this -- that the Son of God, born in a cave, is spared this tragic end only so he can suffer a different tragic end, and that, by the cross, he is present to every tragedy, there in the horror and the suffering and the grief. And by his resurrection he does -- and we can -- bring the hope that proclaims that even in the death of innocents, evil will never have the final word.