THE FOURTH NOEL: BLOOD, TEARS, COMFORT, AND HOLY INNOCENTS
At the exact moment,
a moment I will never forget,
that I knew Noel wasn't going to make it,
I put my hand on his leg and said,
I had, we had, all been so strong
fighting for him and with him,
that there really hadn't been
free time and
for a good cry,
except for those occasional misty moments
as we talked about Noel's life
entwined with ours.
Part laugh, part cry, part mammalian brood instinct.
Then, for some damn reason,
I said it again in Spanish.
Pobrecito, which might also be translated,
Poor little bastard.
I guess you never know what will open the floodgates of grief.
A picture, a voice, a song, a smell, a mental image that forces its way on and in you without the slightest conscious provocation.
In this case, it was word,
a familiar one from our childhood days, growing up on the Mexican border.
One we usually meant ironically and even sarcastically
as if to say--
oh you poor whining baby can't you see I'm playing the violin for you?
With that, not after that but with,
I broke down into uncontrollable sobbing,
Turning away from Noel's bed and hunching over and shaking until my oldest son,Matthew, came and held me tight,
Like I was his baby.
December the 28th is the Feast of the Holy Innocents.
Part of the Christmas "Festivities"--a day of remembrance for the baby boys of Bethlehem,
massacred by King Herod and his soldiers,
who hoped to wipe out the new born king and the kingdom of love in one ugly act.
Why? That's a question Noel asked, although I never knew exactly what he meant.
Why? The mothers of Bethlehem asked, and I know exactly what they meant.
They cried and they cried and they cried and they cried, and after pausing--
to breathe and wipe their snotty noses,
I'm sure they cried some more.
And every year around December the 28th or whatever the real date of the dying,
They cried again.
As they should.
The Gospel of Matthew says their terrible grief
fulfills the words of the prophet Jeremiah,
"It is the voice of Rachel, crying for her children. Refusing to be comforted."
In the medieval tradition, both in art and drama,
the mothers of Bethlehem make their lament so loudly that it becomes an annoyance to the soldiers,
who then start to call them names (like "shrew" ).
Their lament links them with the tradition of Mary, mourning at the cross of her son, refusing to be comforted even by him.
This is usually called the Planctus tradition.
Or sometimes, the Laments of the Virgin Mary.
So, if you want my advice,
do NOT read Saint Augustine's take on the death of Holy Innocents.
Basically, isn't it nice that they got to go to heaven without living on this bitch of an earth.
Or words to that effect.
Maybe I'm missing something, but that
seems to undercut or judge as unworthy
the grieving of the mothers,
which seems to be the very point of the biblical text.
I would, instead recommend the words of St. Matthew. And the acts of son Matthew.
A final bit.
My friends Cindy and Courtney lost their son Tripp in late November of '11.
I know I thought about what that first Christmas must have been like without their shining boy, who had also been my student.
Now I know, although not exactly.
No two griefs are ever alike because grief is always particular grieving for someone in particular.
And that's only one family.
Of course, it's difficult to focus on but important to remember
how many around us are grieving at Christmas.
It's not a few.
Not by a long shot.
The Feast of Holy Innocents is the fourth day of Christmas,
an example of how liturgy is meant to shape and teach us, sometimes even without sermons.
Sometimes better than sermons.
The first Christmas,
the Real Christmas,
is bleared with the tears of grieving mothers
(and we assume, fathers, and brothers, and sisters, and rabbis, and friends).
It is the Lucy Van Pelt version of Christmas
--"Jingle Bells. You know, Santa Claus, and ho-ho-ho, and mistletoe, and presents to pretty girls"--
that is offended by the juxtaposition of such horrors
with fleecy snow, fleecy lambs,
and a divine baby who never cries.
The real Christmas has always been about both birth and dying, dancing and grieving.
And asking why.
Unless I'm missing something, it does not promise or guarantee the Lucy Van Pelt version of anything.
And it may not always even bring comfort.
The mothers of Bethlehem would not be consoled.
But that's no excuse for not trying.
Even if you just hold them until they quit shaking.