The 4th Day of Christmas
Merry Christmas, on this the 4th day of Christmas! The Holy Season is well upon us, and today we see it in all its complexity: we’re still singing carols and chiming bells, while at the same time recoiling from the horror of King Herod’s mass infanticide at Bethlehem, as commemorated in today’s Feast of the Holy Innocents.
Today’s feast reminds us not only of enormities committed against innocent life in our own day, but also that the baby lying in the wooden manger has escaped Herod’s wrath only so that he might die thirty years later on the wooden beams of the cross.
Holy Innocents and St. Anthony of Lerins
The Feast of the Holy Innocents is, of course, the chief liturgical observance in the Church today. There are any number of fine reflections on the witness of these tiny martyrs. See here and here, for example. Here also is my post from last year: Holy Innocents and the Saving Power of Christmas Carols.
This year I’m taking a different approach. As I observed in my recent posts on St. Servulus, St. Nicasius, and St. Anastasia, lesser observances are often overwhelmed during great celebrations such as Christmas and Easter. There are, in fact other saints commemorated today, whose memory can be completely buried under the combined weight of the Feast of the Holy Innocents and the ongoing celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord. One of these is St. Anthony of Lerins (also known as St. Anthony the Hermit). As we shall see, there are some interesting ways in which this saint’s story complements that of the tiny martyrs of Bethlehem.
The Attraction of Sanctity
As it happens, St. Anthony would probably be just as happy to be ignored, if his life here on earth is any indication. He born in the year 468 AD at Valeria in the region that the Romans had called Lower Pannonia, but which at this time was controlled by the Huns.
Fortunately, Christian life continued despite the hegemony of the pagan Huns. Anthony enjoyed the blessing of growing up among holy men. He lived for a time with St. Severinus of Noricum after his father died in Anthony’s ninth year. When St. Severinus himself died a few years later, Anthony moved to the household of his uncle Constantius, who was the bishop of Lorsch in what is now Bavaria. When he reached adulthood he became a hermit in the area of Lake Como in northern Italy.
As is often the case with holy hermits, his sanctity attracted a large number of followers. Seeking to recapture a little of the solitude for which he embraced the eremitical life, Anthony moved on yet again. Eventually, he settled in Lerins in France, where he spent his final two years on earth . . . and where the would-be recluse became famous (yet again!) throughout the district for sanctity and miracle-working.
Power Made Perfect
In the story of St. Anthony of Lerins we see a couple of themes that connect him to today’s commemoration of the Holy Innocents, and to the Child in the manger in whose honor we are celebrating this entire liturgical season. St. Paul tells us in his Second Letter to the Corinthians:
[The Lord] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Corinthians 12:9)
Thoughout Salvation History
We see God’s propensity to reveal his power in weakness throughout salvation history. The preeminent example is when the infinite Second Person of the Trinity, the Eternal Word, manifests himself in this world as a tiny baby lying in a feeding trough in a stable. We also see it in the helplessness of the Holy Innocents slaughtered at Bethlehem.
This propensity appears yet again in the life of a simple man who wanted nothing more than to live a life of holiness with his Lord. Isn’t it interesting that on this day when we commemorate the sacrifice of those children, and the sanctity of St. Anthony, the powers that loomed so large in their lifetimes are only dim memories. The power of King Herod, and of the Huns under whose rule Anthony was born, has long since crumbled, and their names have become little more than bywords for cruelty and violence.
It’s not that the power of the Herods, Huns, and other worldly tyrants has had no lasting effect. It’s just that their “power” doesn’t accomplish what they expect. St. Paul again provides us with the key when he says: “We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
What God Wills
We see this idea applied in the non-scriptural passage in today’s Office of Readings, a homily on the slaughter of the Holy Innocents by St. Quodvultdeus (his name means “What God wills” in Latin). Addressing King Herod our homilist says:
Yet your throne is threatened by the source of grace – so small, yet so great – who is lying in the manger. He is using you, all unaware of it, to work out his own purposes freeing souls from captivity to the devil. He has taken up the sons of the enemy into the ranks of God’s adopted children.
God makes all things work for the good of those who love him, including the evil machinations of wicked men like Herod. How much more so, then, the good things in the life of a holy man like St. Anthony of Lerins. God gives us his gifts not so much for our own sake, but so that we might use them in the service of others, to help free their souls, as the homilist above puts it, from captivity to the devil. St. Anthony was seeking a quiet life of prayer and contemplation, but God gave him the grace to desire such a life, and the power to perform miracles, so that he might sanctify the people among whom he was living. Let us all pray for the grace to embrace likewise God’s gifts to us, and to use them for Quod Deus Vult: What God Wills.
Today’s Mass Readings: Feast of the Holy Innocents
Music For Christmas: Coventry Carol
An interesting note: at one time, the story of these poor murdered children itself inspired a large number of songs. The best known today (the only one, it appears, that is still regularly performed) is the “Coventry Carol” (lyrics below), dating from the 16th century. In the clip below Collegium Vocale Gent performs the song, with Peter Dijkstra conducting. The artwork in the video is Sano di Pietro’s 1470 painting “Massacre of the Innocents.”
1. Lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Lullay, Thou little tiny Child.
By, by, lully, lullay.
2. O sisters, too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day;
This poor Youngling for whom we sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.
3. Herod the King, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day;
His men of might, in his own sight,
All children young, to slay.
4. Then woe is me, poor Child, for Thee,
And ever mourn and say;
For Thy parting, nor say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child,
By by, lully lullay.