(detail from Giotto's Massacre of the Innocents)
The Twelve Joys of Christmas #4: Weeping
A friend recently said that "tears are good, they make you real." I'm chewing on that (if you know me, you know that it is my wont to chew on nuggets of wisdom or at least interesting groups of human words which MAY yet prove to be wisdom once thoroughly chewed).
Today, December 28 is, to me, a very important part of the Christmas season (which runs from Christmas Day to Epiphany, not from Halloween or Thanksgiving to Christmas Day). Because it is the feast or memorial day of the "Holy Innocents."
What does that mean?
It means it is the day that most Christians in the world for many centuries now have set aside to remember the babies slaughtered in Bethlehem by King Herod's soldiers when they were looking for the child Jesus.
Let that soak in. If you dare. The fourth day of Christmas. When somebody's true love gave him or her four calling birds. That's the day we remember a massacre of innocent children. If we chose to do so. Of course we don't have to choose to remember or reflect. But maybe we should.
It is a very strange event to highlight, to memorialize, as part of this season of joy (a word we often equate with cheer and general good feelings). I can hear y'all all the way down here in Austin: Way to chill our bliss Ben Camino (and church universal)! Just when we are all getting excited and feeling good about the gift of Christmas (even as we return many of the gifts of Christmas), we are supposed to spend some time thinking about the horrific massacre of innocent children by a corrupt political regime? Can't we just stay tuned in to our Christmas high for another day or two (at least until the first hangover of 2017)?
No. You can't. I am here, as always, to state the painfully obvious, just as the placement of this sorrowful day of remembrance smack dab in the first week of Christmas does. The coming of Christ, the reason for the season according to Bud's Carwash, like pretty much every other moment of human history, that is, the stuff creatures do in time, was laced with sorrow, put folks at risk, was touched by unthinkable grief.
Think about it. Being born (labor pains), working (labor pains), parenting, family, friendship, love. If you squint your eyes a bit, all you can see is the loss, the wounds, the bitter sorrow, from which we would be completely free if we just didn't "be" (Hamlet said a few things about this).
If you care about things, especially people, you will feel some very deep loss, you will feel like your guts have been ripped out, you will weep (if you're lucky), you may scream and wail, you may feel that your life is completely empty and numb at the core. You may stand in a patch of sunlight in a frozen field and wonder why in the hell you even ever cared about being alive. Or caring about someone else.
If you don't care about things, especially people, life is still going to be hard.
But I am addressing those who care.
The heart of the story of the massacre of the children in Bethlehem is not the baby boys, nor is it the soldiers, or even nasty King Herod. The focus, the emphasis, is on the mothers. Who raised a wail of sorrow of biblical proportions, literally.
In the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, their sorrow and weeping is linked with a passage from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah (fittingly enough, sometimes called "the weeping prophet"). "Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: 'A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.'"
I have always had a very deep emotional response to that phrase "refusing to be comforted, because they (the babies, the lovely things worth our love and our tears) are no more." Wait, refusing to be comforted. Well that sounds just downright unChristian, doesn't it? I mean, to every thing there is a season right? God shall wipe away all our tears, right?
Yeah, but, I wasn't taking about those verses. There is a joy in comfort, no doubt. That's another joy I'm going to be writing about. But there is a joy (not the cheery kind), a profound gift for suffering humanity, in tears, in weeping, in refusing to be comforted.
In the traditions that grew up around this story, and there were many, the mothers didn't just weep. They also fought back like bloody hell against Herod's soldiers with the weapons at their disposal--pots, pans, distaffs, and bitter, biting words. This tradition was worked into the famous medieval biblical plays, known in the England as the "mystery plays," so much so that it was pretty much obligatory for any complete "cycle" of plays (starting from the creation of the world or the fall of the angels to the final judgement) to include a big play about this story. And it was probably the single play with the most female characters in all medieval drama (although they were played by men).
It is from one of those plays that the famous Coventry Carol come from, a lullaby of a Bethlehem mother to her murdered son. I have a link to a version of that at the end of this reflection.
It is also clear from that song, and from many other sources, that the massacre of the innocents was to serve as a reminder that our lives, while open to great joy (such as the coming of Jesus or any baby), are always touched with death, loss, and grieving. Maybe the animals in the manger could look dumbly upon the loss of a calf or a lamb (maybe I say), but such is not the lot of the children of Eve.
It is also a reminder that the child who survived, the boy who lived, also would shortly (for what are thirty years or so to those who love?) be facing his own slaughter. Or, rather, those who loved him would be facing it, including his own mother. Including his special friend, John, who called himself "the disciple whom Jesus loved."
But this is Christmas, and we are talking about joy. As I said the other night, when riffing on baby ducks falling from trees, we are also trying to work towards an impressionistic definition of love, that which we can't always explain but find more necessary than bread or water to our survival.
Tears, generally, are not seen as a thing of joy. As a gift. Not generally, I said. But sometimes they are.
I went through a year of crying several years ago. I would teach in sunglasses sometimes. I would walk into a friend's office, shut the door, and weep. That wasn't neat. But it was necessary. I am glad now I was able to do it. I felt "real," in the words of my friend. Felt like a human being.
I know that it's easy for us to say that things are "fine," when they obviously are not because, after all, we can't always be living in the full emotion of our sorrow. But the key word there is always. It's true that we can't always let ourselves touch the raw nerve of our grief, but if we never do, if sometimes we do not, I'm afraid we are missing a very profound, necessary, and under-appreciated human "joy."
We are creatures who love. Who care. Who lose. Who lament. It is almost impossible to excuse ourselves from the first three of those human activities. To excuse ourselves from the fourth is, well, inexcusable.
My dear sister has lost three unborn children. Twice by miscarriage and once by ectopic pregnancy. She was telling me about the happy day going for the first ultrasound only to find out that the pregnancy was ectopic. There were no funerals, no pictures, no nothing. Except loss. And tears.
"Did you cry?"
"Yea, I really thought I was going to die. I really didn't think I would make it. I cried a long time. And still do."
I know she was crying about it tonight again when I told her what I was writing about.
Lost hopes, lost dreams, lost loves, lost children, lost youth, lost innocence, lost opportunities. The lost list is long. No religion worth its claim to wisdom claims to take away our vulnerability to loss or our need to cry.
Christ came in joy, although perhaps with some tears of labor pains (not sure on the theology of all that). Thirty or so years later, and I'm sure it seemed like thirty days to his mother, he was betrayed, shamed, tortured, and executed. A medieval tradition of Mary's epic weeping, called the Planctus, grew out of our attempts to relate that story to our story.
At least in terms of the Christmas traditions, just a few days after the joyful birth, soldiers descended on Bethlehem and wiped out (or tried to) the population of young male children. Medieval persons, especially mothers, knew about loss. Infant mortality was high. Life was vulnerable, giving life was always a risk. IF you were ever going to celebrate joy, such as the joy of Christmas, you knew, in your gut, that it was mixed with the "thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to" (Hamlet).
Obviously, our lives too are at risk. And the lives of those we love. Further afield (or perhaps not that far), real innocents are being massacred. Pick your location, Syria being the most obvious. The story of holy innocents is, of course, a call for our attention, our care, our action to protect or try to protect, just as those mothers did in the mystery plays. Not just a call to cry.
Tears can be an excuse. Some people can become addicted to a kind of shallow grieving for every new daily tragedy reported on Facebook, rather than a deep concern which includes grieving, but may not end there.
The feast of Holy Innocents points us to the strangest, perhaps, of the Joys of Christmas. The Joy of weeping. The healthy, appropriate response to a world of hurt from hearts who love, who care. It's the risk that we're taking every time we love. It's not the opposite of smiling; it's the complement. It signals something that, I think, links us to Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and those dear mothers of so long ago.
It's a sign that we love deeply enough to hurt like that.
Here is a lovely performance of the Coventry Carol.
I like it especially because it performed, for once, by women. The name of the group is Anúna.