It is a commonplace that Christianity, being a faith in the manifestation of God in the flesh, is a religion especially invested in history, in the importance of place and time. That God appeared there, in Palestine, two thousand years ago and was born to these specific parents, Mary and Joseph, and was placed in that trough and no other, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate and left one grave exquisitely empty—this is the “scandal of particularity” so often named as Christianity’s most challenging feature and its most world-affirming. “This Jesus, whom you crucified”—so goes the first Christian sermon on Pentecost day. Yet the particularity of the Christian story extends beyond the particularity of Jesus. It includes as well his parents, the one who washed his hands of his execution, and the disciples whom he named and who abandoned and betrayed him. It includes every person who touched Jesus or whom Jesus touched in the course of his earthly sojourn.
What is the significance of these chance meetings between Jesus and the characters populating the Gospels? Consider the woman with the alabaster flask. By whatever inspiration she approached the Lord’s body, her deed was made immortal by the Lord, as possessing a significance far beyond what she could have envisioned. Or imagine the man born blind, whose suffering Jesus revealed to be the result of no one’s sins, neither his nor his parents’. It was a suffering, instead, for the unveiling of the glory of God. After his healing and the events following, did his interior vision—now purified along with his eyes—perceive in Jesus’s words a confirmation that he had been born for that very moment? These two characters exemplify the reverberations of the scandal of particularity, reverberations that extend horizontally across Jesus’s contemporaries, but also vertically, backward through the history of Israel and the Gentiles, and forward into the history of the Church and the world.
“Jacob have I loved, and Esau have I hated.” The scandal of particularity conceals within it the scandal of election; in fact, they are the same. Perhaps the most compact and pressured moment of the Gospel illustrating this fact is the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. For the salvation of the human race, Jesus had to be given up, yet, as St. Paul writes, if the rulers of this world had known him, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. Whatever the reasons for Judas’s betrayal, it is clear that he did not know who Jesus was: His ignorance was critical for his role as the one offering up Jesus for the salvation of the world. Furthermore, it is of Judas that it was written: “the one who eats bread with me has lifted up his heel against me” (Ps. 41:9). Jesus and Judas are intertwined as twin objects of prophecy: “The Son of Man goeth as it is written of him: but woe unto that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed!” I am not here making any claims about free will and divine coercion, about whether Judas could have done otherwise than he did. I only wish to point out that the particularity of Jesus’s salvific life and death cannot be understood apart from the particularity of Judas’s sin and betrayal.
There is another moment in the Gospels, this one from Jesus’s early life, that similarly poses the question of election: the voice heard in Rama, of Rachel who refuses to be comforted. This is the massacre of the innocents, the shadow of Christmas. Christ’s kingship, though not of this world, threatened the rulers of his age, and on account of this, innocents had to die. St. Augustine elaborated this theme in a series of sermons on these massacred innocents: “It is God who is born: innocent victims are owed him, for he comes to condemn the world’s malice.” Like the light which the darkness hates, Christ’s advent provokes spasms of wickedness that inexorably consume the innocent. “For where children are victims, mothers in misery lament.” But it is Christ’s coming that sets these events in motion: “Lambs must be immolated for him who will be crucified, who takes away the sins of the world.” It is in Rama, then, that the question of election sounds its most shrill cry, the wailing of so many slaughtered children. Tradition has estimated variously the number of children Herod put down, from the tens of thousands to the single digits. In the end, the precise number does not matter; even one child dying troubles us. For if it was better that one man should freely die for the whole nation, is it right that one child, with no choice, should die for that one man? Must, as St. Augustine puts it, innocents become victims for him?
We are further scandalized by what precedes this distressing evangelical episode. For as Scripture tells it, Herod’s murderous intent was revealed by God to the Magi in a dream, and it was their avoidance of Herod that spiked his malice beyond the boiling point. The result was the dispatching of his men to kill Bethlehem’s children below the age of two. It was precisely divine interference, therefore, that stoked Herod’s rage and became its proximate cause. And in addition to this, we read that an angel appeared again to Jesus’s caretaker, Joseph, this time warning him of the wrath to come and urging him to take his family to Egypt. Jesus is accordingly saved. Another scandal of particularity: One wonders why more angels were not sent down to warn the other mothers. As Mary asks in the “Coventry Carol”: “O sisters too / How may we do / For to preserve this day / This poor youngling for whom we do sing?” How could they do, indeed, without assistance from above? This election of Jesus for salvation and the baby boys for reprobation eventuates in the sorrow of their mothers, whose weeping fulfills the Scriptures: “Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying, In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and she would not be comforted, because they are not” (Mt. 2:17–18).
The Evangelist Matthew explains that Jesus was sent to Egypt to fulfill the Scripture as well: “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” Jesus, as God’s beloved son, is indeed loved. Is it the case that Jesus God has loved, but the sons of Rama has he hated? Yet Rama is the place where Rachel cries, Rachel the mother of Joseph and Benjamin, the beloved sons of Jacob who were destined to suffer evil for the salvation of Jacob’s tribe. Rachel, the one who so desired children that she burned with envy at her sister, Leah the unloved, whose privileged womb had been opened by the Lord. Rachel, who threatened Jacob that she would die if he proved unable to give her a child. This same Rachel would become the prototype of another woman from Rama, Hannah the childless, whom the Lord blessed with Samuel, the answer to prayer. And this same Rama, the home of these women who loved their children more than their own lives, proved the eventual port of departure for the children of Israel as they were led to exile in Babylon, when they were truly “no more.”
All this suggests that the baby boys of Bethlehem, though passed over for divine deliverance, are nonetheless painted by our evangelists with the hues of election. They are directly in the line of those favored by God. In fact, their suffering is the best evidence of it, for as Jon Levenson has demonstrated in his powerful study on this biblical theme, it is the beloved, elect son who undoubtedly has the greatest sorrows in store. “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good,” Joseph tells his brothers after his resurrection from the pit. And so too with the particular election of these baby boys, which, according to the Church’s tradition, at least, was an election to heaven as the first martyrs for Christ.
I confess that I find this ecclesial tradition troubling. Is involuntary suffering for Christ’s sake susceptible of the title “martyrdom”? These children—able neither to embrace nor to avoid their fate—stand as a peculiar tertium quid between two related problems in the Church’s early years, namely the phenomenon of martyrs too eager to run towards death and other Christians too eager to run away from it. It is difficult to know how to categorize the suffering of these infants whose deaths come in the wake of God’s gracious intervention of the life of Jesus. The “martyrdom” of these innocents shows itself especially strange compared with later Christians’ flights from persecution, since these infants stay to die exactly while Jesus flees. Not that this flight is innocent of suffering—he too will shed his blood at the time he is betrayed and enters willingly into his passion. But is the honorific “martyr” adequate to this unwilled loss of life? Is it enough to comfort Rachel who weeps for her children?
I cannot imagine that it is. I find it equally difficult to obtain comfort for those children of history who are old enough to find themselves the victims of violence, imposed either from without by the cruelty of empires, or from within by the brute facticity of illness. And perhaps worse still is the ache of emptiness for those left behind, lamenting those “who are not,” the grieving voices of Rama who discover themselves as the externalities of a history which Scripture teaches us to see as salvation history. “Salvation history,” not because every moment of this world is willed by God in a direct manner—the bloodletting of Herod is not intended by God as the flight of Jesus is—but because the voice crying out in Rama is as much the subject of sacred prophecy as Jesus’s flight. There is only one world, only one history, and therefore all history is salvation history, because every moment of the world is related, proximately or distantly, to the crux of history planted in Palestine’s blood-soaked soil. If the cost of Christ’s coming was the death of the innocents of Bethlehem, this is a diorama of the universal toll of the divine venture in creation, the untold suffering of so many more innocents. Dostoevsky understood this when he had Ivan culminate his catalogue of created torments with the fist of a little girl beating her chest and crying out to “dear, kind God.” That little girl, like the boys of Bethlehem, must undoubtedly be numbered among the lambs immolated for the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.
Does this make God evil? The question of election and reprobation, from the time of St. Paul onward, has been inextricably linked with theodicy: “O man, who art thou that repliest against God?” (Rom. 9:20). Any faith holding that God instrumentalizes his creatures’ suffering so as to manifest himself in the world, whether to show his justice at the end of time or to accomplish his humble advent in Bethlehem, would be a perverse faith indeed, closer in fact to a blasphemy. The Christian faith cannot be reduced to this scheme, however, if only because Christians confess that God, the One external to the empires of history and nature fueled by the perpetual sacrifice of the innocent, elected himself to become history’s chief Externality. Our life of suffering is not a spectator sport for God; indeed, it is he who submits to become the object of our speculation: “Look and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow.”
We must—for the sake of the moral coherence of the Christian proclamation—distinguish God’s express will from his permissive will. God’s allowance of evil is not his morally intending it: God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. Nonetheless, once God has brought about the realm of created freedom and in that genesis already foreknown its diverse uses and final end, God’s express and permissive wills, the will to divine union and the willing of creaturely freedom and its consequences, become one in the history of the world. This is why we can gratefully say that God’s laying down the foundations of the world was equivalent to the laying down of his Son. When Jesus took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and said, “This is my body,” he was only repeating his own words at the dawn of creation, when he foresaw the fractured pieces of the world that would one day host him. God may not ask our permission for our sufferings, but neither does he wait for us to ask him to join in them. He does not even wait for us to be before pledging himself to be broken by us.
Is this co-presence in suffering enough to excuse God for the monstrous injustices of history, especially when these are seen against the backdrop of God’s breaching of the veil of providence in moments, both biblical and contemporary, of miracle and deliverance? Rachel refuses to be comforted, and Jesus’s choice to be crushed on the wheel of the world left his own mother comfortless, too. “A sword shall pierce thy own soul also,” Simeon prophesied to Mary, that heiress of Hannah and Rachel’s joy and pain. But Mary’s suffering, along with her son’s, remains encompassed by the “Let it be done to me” and the “Not my will, but Thine.” For the women of Rama, by contrast, there is no such willing embrace of suffering, and so their cries, amplified by the silence from above, ascend to what seems an empty heaven. “God is Love,” Sergius Bulgakov reminds us, “but in the world there is malice, strife, and hatred, the world is a canvas for the immeasurable sufferings of creation. Groans and wailings rush to the heavens, but heaven remains mute and unresponsive. Such is the kenosis of the Father’s love.”
Perhaps it is only in the eschaton, when the kenosis of the Father has come to an end and God is all in all, that God will show his justice in permitting the suffering of the world, in allowing the cries in Rama, and in every corner and breast of this world where Rachel’s cry is perpetually heard. Perhaps St. Paul is right that the sufferings of the present time are not to be compared to the glories that await us. St. Augustine suggests as much when he proclaims that, on that eschatological day, Rachel no longer mourns her sons, since God wipes away all tears from their eyes. This may in fact be the only consolation available to us—a consolation that is no consolation, for Rachel refuses to be comforted until it is God himself who consoles. He will do this when the children who are no more, mirabile dictu, are once again for their mothers. If the Feast of the Holy Innocents has a moral meaning, then, it must be this: God’s election of our suffering is always enfolded within the greater election of our ultimate joy. “For he has enfolded all in disobedience that he might have mercy on all” (Rom. 11:32).
But that remains to be seen, and so this story of the massacre of the innocents presents the photo-negative of that joy beyond all earthly consolation, that peace which passes all understanding, for it honors the sorrow that refuses to be consoled. And in these days when the sorrows of life appear in clearer outline against the glow of Christmas cheer, this celebration of the unwilling martyrs can become a permission for grief for those intimately acquainted with loss. In other words, the Feast of the Holy Innocents is Rachel’s feast, too. Christmas is indeed the token of God’s faithfulness to his promise: For unto us a child is born. Unto Rachel, therefore, we trust that her children will be re-born. Until then, we implore Mary, the mother of Joy who is also the mother of Sorrows, to pray for us and for all the women of Rama, that they and we may share in that future consolation even now, through the Comforter who prays within us with sighs too deep for words.
Roberto J. De La Noval is a doctoral candidate in the history of Christianity at the University of Notre Dame. He dedicates this essay to Brittnee.