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This Editorial was published in the Fourth R, Westar's bi-monthly Magazine. First published in 1987, The Fourth R shares the latest thinking from religion scholars and writers—in non-technical language aimed at a general audience.

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In the Deep Covid Midwinter…

From The Fourth R Volume 34, Issue 1 Jan – Feb 2021

In the Deep Covid Midwinter…Precisely because we are in that endless wasteland of the Covid midwinter, mesmerized within our isolated snow globes of this pandemic, my mind runs beyond the cozy Christmas crèche, beyond angelic lullabies. My mind does not stop at that halting moment when shepherds take a knee, but keeps running to respond to what seem like distant cries. My eyes focus on a feast in the liturgical calendar just a stone’s throw away from Christmas.

The Feast of the Innocents arrives every year three days after Christmas. When I was young I considered this feast an intrusion to the Christmas holiday. When I heard sermons pointing out that this feast underscored the fated script of Jesus, namely, that Jesus’ life was ever tied with suffering, that, even in the midst of jubilation, we should catch the shudder of crucifixion, I counted such commentary as the typical adult habit of spoiling a good time. Can’t you let us have some fun for a while? It’s the Twelve Days of Christmas, isn’t it?

But as I grew older and carefully considered that a chorus of voices chimed in on this text, I began to see that there may well be some wisdom to locating this savage story soon after Christmas.

Albert Camus in The Fall (a modern rewriting of Dante’s Inferno) declares through his main character, Jean Baptiste Clamence, that the reason for Jesus’ execution was connected to the slaughter of the innocents. Camus casts a psychological perspective on the biblical passage:

The real reason is that he knew he was not altogether innocent. If he did not bear the weight of the crime he was accused of, he had committed others . . . he must have heard of the Slaughter of the Innocents. The children of Judea massacred while his parents were taking him to a safe place—why did they die if not because of him? Those blood-splattered soldiers, those infants cut in two filled him with horror. But given the man that he was, I am sure he could not forget. (Vintage Books, 1956, trans. Justin O’Brien, 112–13)

Because Jesus could not shake off that bloody incident, he would go meekly to his death—not to redeem the sins of humanity but to expatiate his own complicity. Of course, the character Clamence interprets it this way to justify his self-serving domination. Since no one is innocent, then power determines the winner. And Jean Baptiste Clamence is all about winning a game that ends for everyone in the final circle of hell.

Recent scripture scholarship tempers Camus’ take. The passage, found only in Matthew, is part of a later midrash that wraps up the narrative of Jesus’ birth in the swaddling clothes of Moses and the fate of the Jewish people. Moreover, while this passage is fictive, it is a “true fiction,” since Herod the Great had indeed put his own children to death. Thus, as a story it conveys the solidarity of Jesus with his people (as he makes another exodus out of a killing zone) while at the same time echoing the lethal reality of Herod’s domination. Despite these critical insights, this passage is still quite disturbing. I can readily understand how the writer of Matthew adds the haunting lines from Jeremiah:

In Ramah the sound of mourning
And bitter grieving was heard;
Rachel weeping for her children.
She refused to be consoled:
They were no more. (Jer 31:15)

The agony does not go away. How well we are used to this. We have seen contemporary instances online and in our own lives. We have not been able to shield our eyes from those children washed up on foreign shores, we have not been able to stop our ears from the cries of children being pulled from their parents and left in cages, we have not been able to avoid the continued killings of Black men and women by those sworn to uphold safety and security. Our summer was awash in massive demonstrations for justice, our fall beset by mind-numbing political charges and counter charges. We have felt fear grow substantially throughout our nation.

And with Covid covering our nation, we seem caught up in a ceaseless slaughter. Shall we kill each other or let the virus do it?

Six years ago my son and I witnessed the remarkable opera Silent Night. Composed by Kevin Puts with a libretto by Mark Campbell, this Pulitzer Prize-winning opera tells of the little known event during the 1914 Christmas truce between enemy combatants in World War I. For a brief period German, French, and British soldiers, after retrieving their casualties, treated each other as human. They shared rations, played football, set up Christmas decorations, and sang carols in their native tongues. In the opera notes it was pointed out that not only was this the only such truce of the war but also those companies involved were transferred to the more vicious parts on the front to punish these troops for remembering that the enemy was human.

I return to this opera not simply because it celebrates a precious silent night. I go back to it because its creators refused to let such an event disappear into the shadows of time. This is not just a celebration of that long-ago, onetime event. Rather, the production of this opera stands as a creative opening against the onslaught of despair. They have chosen to let these men sing again, play again, realize In the Deep Covid Midwinter… Continued from page 2 that they had more in common with the enemy than their orders and officers permitted. It underscores why we today still sings carols in our isolated situation.

This is indeed lamentation time. But lamentations come out of abiding care and a stubborn refusal to be quiet. We will not let our lost, will not permit our losses, to be forgotten. Rather, we shall sing, and cry, and sing “Noel.”

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Arthur J. Dewey (Th.D., Harvard University) is Professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati. A distinguished teacher, writer, translator and commentator, he is the author of Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus was Remembered (forthcoming 2017) and co-author of The Complete Gospel Parallels (with Robert J. Miller, 2011) and The Authentic Letters of Paul (with Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt, 2010). Dewey’s poetry has appeared in Christian Century and his poetic perspective aired on the Saturday Morning Edition on Public Radio Station WVXU (91.7) in Cincinnati for more than a dozen years.

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