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Holy Innocents and violence against children

Holy Innocents and violence against children

Two weeks after the deaths of children and teachers in Newtown, Connecticut, the Feast of the Holy Innocents is particularly poignant for many Americans.

In 2010, The Rev. Michael Sullivan, rector of The Church of the Holy Innocents in Atlanta, Georgia commissioned Suzanne Zoole, a writer of iconography, to write a Holy Innocents’ icon.


The parish website, written long before Newtown, reflects on violence against children.

The tragedy of children losing their lives to violence and cruelty is not just found in fairytales. We find them in the newspapers most every day, and for us Christians, violence casts a shadow on the birth of the God-child Jesus into our world. In the massacre of the children of Bethlehem who died in place of the newborn child of God, we not only have a vivid reminder of the violent world into which Jesus was born, but we also are reminded of the violent world we live in today. The name of our own church – Holy Innocents’ – a constant reminder. In the state of Georgia this year, the Office of Child Advocate suggests that of the 1700 – 1800 estimated deaths of children (0 – 17 years of age), 600-700 of these deaths will require special investigation due to neglect and abuse.

The Episcopal Church Office of Government Relations released this statement on December 20, 2012:

One of the more striking contrasts on the Christian calendar is the commemoration of the Feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28, three days after the celebration of Christmas. In remembering the young children slaughtered by King Herod in Matthew’s account of Jesus’s birth, the Church jolts us from Christmas joy into a contemplation of the ways in which violence and human brokenness, in spite of Christmas, still enslave the human race. Today, just as two thousand years ago, the most jolting violence of all is that committed against innocent children.

This year, that jolt came earlier, and much more tangibly, than it normally does. The murder of 26 innocent victims, many of them children, in a schoolhouse in Connecticut in the waning days of Advent ripped through the joy of Christmas for millions. As our hearts and minds struggle to comprehend the tragedy of young lives cut short, Holy Innocents Day this year offers an opportunity for grace, hope, and inspiration for the days ahead. It offers an opportunity “to awaken us” as Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said in her message immediate after the shootings, “to the unnoticed number of children and young people who die senselessly across this land every day” and challenge us “to work toward a different future.”

John Thatamanil, Associate Professor of Theology and World Religions at Union Theological Seminary in New York and member of St. Augustine’s Episcopal Chapel at Vanderbilt, writes in the Huffington Post:

The slaughter of innocents and the birth of a child in excruciating vulnerability — this is a profoundly counterintuitive way to speak of God’s coming. Unlike the light and unblemished merriness that we wish each other every Christmas, the Bible offers no happily-ever-after fairy tale. The world into which the Christian Messiah enters is shattered by terror and ruled by Roman imperial power and its client dictators.

The Gospel narratives suggest that the coming of God does not (then or now) undo our capacity to inflict violence upon each other nor does it radically reconfigure the conditions under which we live out our lives. On the contrary, these very conditions, in all their fragility, are sanctified by incarnation. When God assumes flesh and enters the world, this very world is accepted and embraced.

God does not first remake the world in order to enter it, and entering the world does not diminish the dignity of divinity. The incarnation affirms that our fragility and frailty are not contrary to divine intention. Rather, they too are taken up by divinity when God becomes flesh. This world, as it stands, offers the necessary conditions for love and community. The coming of God as a child affirms that this fragile world is as it ought to be.

God does not come to eradicate vulnerability but to teach us how to welcome it. Love comes to open our eyes to look for holiness not in might and power, not in any futile attempt to secure ourselves against each other by force of arms, but precisely in our delicate bonds with each other.


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Ann Fontaine

The name of the feast is not so much about children but about “collateral damage” — all those who are killed in a “cause” but really know nothing of the cause.

Murdoch Matthew

BD, I meant to say ‘ “Innocents” is not a helpful idea, with its overtones of Original Sin and implications that the little dears are “innocent” until corrupted by puberty, or sexual experience.’

I didn’t mean to assert a direct connection with Original Sin, but to suggest that innocence is tied up in the popular mind with sexual purity. (Original Sin is often presented as transmitted sexually. New Testament writers had an ideal of No Sex.) I still hold that children are not “innocent” (a sentimental thought) but inexperienced. They have the beginnings of all the human foibles. And they’re more sexual than society is willing to admit.

Bill Dilworth

Robert F, taken by itself the part of Dr. Thatamanil’s statement you quote does lend itself to the troubling idea that an unredeemed world is perfectly alright, but in context seems to point to the place of vulnerability in Creation as a part of God’s plan. It doesn’t seem to be an assertion that “it’s all good,” since his article acknowledges ways that it’s not good at all.

Bill Dilworth

Murdoch Matthew, I think you’re mistaken in thinking that “Innocents” has much to do with Original Sin in this context. If one wanted to highlight the doctrine of Original Sin, “innocent” surely wouldn’t be the word to use to describe someone affected by it, would it? I think that the main idea is that these children were innocent of any “actual sin” – committing any action contrary to the will of God. In that sense (and until the day when courts of law replace “guilty” or “innocent” with “experienced” and “inexperienced”) it seems to me that the title “Innocents” is pretty appropriate.

Murdoch Matthew

“Innocents” is not a helpful idea, with its overtones of Original Sin and implications that the little dears are “innocent” until corrupted by puberty, or experience. Children are inexperienced, not innocent. It’s the communities’ duty to see that their experience contributes to positive growth and healthy functioning.

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