Dear brothers in the priesthood in this your Year for Priests, dear parishioners and dear friends engaged in fostering the culture of life:
The Lord calls us together on this feast of the Holy Innocents to praise him as the Author of Life and to give him thanks for the wondrous gift of the Incarnation, the greatest possible gesture of God’s extended hand of love to us. Christmas “is a Feast that praises the gift of life.” The Father also calls us to celebrate this Eucharist, the source of all apostolic activity, to be refreshed, strengthened and made firmer in resolve in our ongoing care to safeguard human life in every stage of its God-given existence, from conception to its natural end.
I wish to express to all of you my gratitude for your willingness not just to affirm the sacrosanct value of every human life but to work and pray that this value be recognized as absolutely necessary to the common good of society.
With the coming of Christ new value is placed on human life. Because the Word was made flesh and lived among us (cf. Jn 1:14), he sanctified all life. In Christ we are made even more aware that each and every human being is made in the image and likeness of God; that each and every human being is unique, precious and unrepeatable. Moreover, because of the Lord’s Sacrifice on the Cross, each and every human being has an eternal destiny to be with God in heaven,
It is significant that the brief account of the infancy of Jesus mentions, practically at the same time, his birth and the danger which he immediately had to confront. In today’s Gospel, St. Matthew tells us of Herod’s plot against Jesus. Informed by the Magi who came from the East to see the new king who was to be born (cf. Mt 2:2), Herod senses a threat to his power, and after their departure he orders the death of all male children aged two years or under in Bethlehem and the surrounding towns. Jesus escapes from the hands of Herod thanks to a special divine intervention and the fatherly care of Joseph, who takes him with his mother into Egypt, where they remain until Herod’s death.
We see, then, that when Jesus was still an infant, perhaps not yet even beginning to speak, the dark and baleful shadow of death entered into his life, however vaguely he was conscious of it. The fear and anxiety it must have caused Mary and Joseph was surely transmitted wordlessly to him as they hastily departed as refugees for an alien country. The experience of having their Son tracked down by soldiers under orders to kill him, along with all male children his age, was surely an occasion when the Holy Family first confronted the murderous forces allied against their Son. Commenting on this flight and slaughter of the Innocents, Pope John Paul II wrote: “Was it not a prophetic event that the birth of Christ was accompanied by danger to his life? Yes, even the life of the One who is at the same time Son of Man and Son of God was threatened. It was endangered from the very beginning, and only by a miracle did he escape death.”
Herod distinguished himself by the cold-blooded murder of innocent babies, in a vain effort to secure his throne against any rivals. We do not know their number, but they are venerated as martyrs because they died in the place of Christ. In a similar way we can consider all the unborn who die in the womb as silent witnesses to Christ and his infinite power to save.
Herod wanted at all costs to stay in control; he just did “what he had to do” to maintain his power. We act the same way whenever we make choices that disregard the cost to others. The harm done to them doesn’t seem to matter. Only “I” matter, because all that matters is “me.” All you need to do is turn on the news to hear that: everybody making their claim that “I have the right, whatever that may be; therefore, whatever is inconvenient to me is okay for me to get rid of – even if that is another human person, in the womb, handicapped or suffering.”
From the outset, the light radiating from the cave of Bethlehem shines amidst darkness. Even as an infant, Jesus is involved in the battle between life and death, and death will pursue him from the slaughter of the Innocents until his own Good Friday. Even as a Child, Jesus is a “ “a sign that will be opposed,” “sign of contradiction” (Lk 2:34).
The ancient struggle between the civilisation of life and love and the culture of lies and death always involves individual choices, because every act of love- and life-giving has individual givers and beneficiaries; so too every act of violence or killing. Yet that struggle is also social and cultural, because there is a wide web of people, forces and ideas that incline people to such acts and multiply their commonness and degree.
All too often in our country crimes against life are supported by government, certain professions and public opinion. There is no little irony in our present situation. When the inviolable rights of the human person are proclaimed in the public forum – as they should be – and the value of life publicly affirmed, the most basic human right, “the right to life, is being denied or trampled upon, especially at the more significant moments of existence: the moment of birth and the moment of death.”
That is why you have an irreplaceable role to play: we need – the Church needs, society needs – evangelists, heralds, of life, people willing to confront the weakness of a culture which has trivialized the gift of life. For, as the Holy Father has said, “How can it be that the most wondrous and sacred human space – the womb – has become a place of unutterable violence?”
Our focus on the unborn and on the vulnerable in our midst reminds us of the responsibility that we have to work to bring about a change in Canada, to persuade them to stop thinking that by taking violent means against another that they are able to solve the very real challenges they often face.
Ours is an enormous task, one fraught with difficulties and setbacks, and yet we dare not lose hope. The innocents slaughtered in our day should not occasion despair in us. We are part of a struggle that goes back to the murder of Cain – but we also have the palm of victory in our hands.
Each Christmas we hear again the Angel declare to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ, the Lord” (Lk 2:10-11). The source of this “great joy,” as Pope John Paul once pointed out, is obviously the coming of a Saviour; “but Christmas also reveals the full meaning of every human birth, and the joy which accompanies the Birth of the Messiah is thus seen to be the foundation and fulfillment of joy at every child born into the world (cf. Jn 16:21).” If there are bloody Herods in our day, there are also joyful angel choirs, singing for the birth of each child destined for eternal life. Thanks be to God, the Light – Christ, the light of the world – has shone in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.
Prayer for a New Light
Whatever specific actions we undertake – and, as social beings, we must take action – they will be in vain unless they are founded on the conviction that we do not approach those who are straying with feelings of arrogance or self-righteousness. The fact that we know that we are right about the sacred value of human life should make us humble and more determined to spread this message by the love shown in our lives and our willingness to be servants of life. As St. John reminds us in the First Reading today, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 Jn 1:8). Pro-lifers are convinced – mightily convinced – of the boundless mercy of God. That is the light we bring to the world: the truth about God’s love, about forgiveness, about the beauty of human life in all its stages and states.
When you live and preach the liberating message of Jesus Christ, know that you are offering the words of life to the world and are supported by the Church. Your prophetic witness is urgent and essential not just to the Catholic community but to the whole human family.
As we continue our Eucharist this morning, let us ask the Mary, the Mother of Life, and the Holy Innocents, whose feast we are celebrating, to intercede for us that our efforts will be sustained so that we may have the courage to bring about a renewed respect for human life in Canada, build a culture of life, protect the innocents of our day and comfort those who mourn.
_ J. Michael Miller, CSB
Archbishop of Vancouver