A Banquet for the Innocents
Last week a collective anguish and sadness has swept across our country like a wave coming up on the beach. No words can suffice to comprehend the suffering of those families who lost their children to a young man that came with guns into an elementary school in Connecticut and killed seven adults and twenty small children. And no words can explain why such a thing happens or what it means.
Later President Obama came on TV and said, “today our hearts are broken,” and he was right. Then he asked people to pray for these families and these children, saying at the end, “May God bless their little souls.” I thought to myself, though, how interesting it is that most of the time in public life our leaders are content to leave God locked in an upstairs room, kept away from daily business, but how when we are suddenly helpless or facing something inexplicable we will unlock the door and let Him in for a little while. Perhaps if we would let Him in more of the time, some of these things might not happen at all.
But there have been many such tragedies in human history for a long, long time. I thought of those children we call the “holy innocents.” They were slain by Herod when he felt threatened by the promise of Jesus’s birth and gave an order that all the male children in Bethlehem and the surrounding countryside, two years old and under, were to be killed. By this the words of the prophet Jeremiah were fulfilled and these words echo today with the very same pain. “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” Picture Joseph and Mary hurriedly running away with their child in their arms. It is not much different than the scenes of school children running away with their teachers.
The Christian message to all this senseless suffering is that God is well aware of our pain and our tragedy. And He will not be locked out or managed by us. Instead He will do as He pleases and so He has chosen to come and to suffer with us. This is what we celebrate at Christmas -- that God has come to us. Not that all things now are bright and merry on earth. But rather that by His coming He was willing to be one of us and to suffer with us, even voluntarily enduring a terrible death on the Cross, so that by His suffering He might open to us the doors to the Kingdom for which we have always longed.
This is the only thing that can make sense of such horrific suffering as we have seen. And it is the promise we hear spoken of in the Gospel (Luke 14) which was read last Sunday in Orthodox churches around the world. In heaven tables are arranged for a great banquet. Bright table clothes are being spread out and pressed smoothly across them. Fine plates and glasses and silver are being carefully set. Candles are being lit and everything is nearly ready.
In the Narnia books the Pevensi children are whisked at various times away from their regular lives into the wonderful world of Narnia. And each time as their adventures come to an end they are sad as they must leave and go back to where they were. But in the last book it is not so. Instead they are told by Aslan that this time they can stay, that their life there is over, and they are overjoyed. And then they begin to faintly remember that hadn’t there been an awful crunching noise when they were on the train just before they came to Narnia this time. And they wonder if perhaps it means that there they were killed. But now it is of no matter for now they are in Narnia, which is much better anyway.
Jesus said, “Allow the little children to come unto Me, for of such is the Kingdom of heaven.” We can be assured today that there are innocent children helping to ready a banquet table in heaven. And while for us their departure is filled with unimaginable grief, for them it is not. This banquet is open to all. The admission paid for by the suffering of God’s Son Himself. “Go,” He says, “into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that My house may be filled.” Let us live our lives in such a way that the firm belief in this Kingdom, in this banquet, will guide everything we do and say now, until we all take our places at the great feast in heaven when all the sorrow of this world will fade away.
This column is the opinion of Fr. Marc Dunaway of St. John Orthodox Cathedral in Chugiak.