What If Herod Wins?

To be honest, I forgot about yesterday’s feast. I had celebrated Christmas at the splendid little Gothic Church of the Holy Innocents in Manhattan — and a rousingly festive solemn Latin Mass it was, complete with lovingly sung polyphony. That parish has a shrine to the unborn, complete with a book where bereaved or penitent mothers can name the never-born children whom they now mourn. But high on incense, chant, and Christmas cheer, I walked right past the shrine, charging forward into the streets of my beloved home town, the place where man’s achievements reach their pinnacle: the Chrysler and Empire State buildings, each massively exquisite; the vast apparatus on Wall Street for swiftly transferring investments where they are needed, to make prosperity possible (as it is today) for a vastly higher proportion of the human population than ever before since Eden; the torrents of culture and creativity that flow through New York City, from Broadway’s theaters to Soho’s galleries, from the vast and generous museums to the tiny apartments filled with men and women sternly dedicated to crafts like writing, acting, painting, sculpting, editing, and producing; the splendid and successful ethnic diversity that brings together people of every tribe and creed to dwell in amazing harmony.

To some, New York may seem a Tower of Babel, but loving mankind as I try to do, it has always been to me a holy city — filled as it is with millions of images of God. The city at Christmastime spreads its riches before the visitor like one of those vast, elaborate Nativity scenes the Neapolitans like to make, which can take up the whole sanctuary if you let them — teeming with dozens of shepherds; herds of tiny animals; gorgeous, exotic Wise Men; glittering Las Vegas angels; and hundreds of ordinary people going about their daily lives in utter ignorance of the Mystery: cobblers and grifters, milkmaids and goatherds, codgers and crones. It’s fitting that New York’s Metropolitan Museum hosts one such grandiose creche beneath its towering Christmas tree; it’s a perfect symbol of the city.

Never depicted in any Nativity I’ve seen is the event the Church marks three days later — the Slaughter of the Innocents in Bethlehem. And rightly so, I suppose; what child needs to see armed henchmen off in the background, slaughtering newborn boys? The fact that the Church insists on marking this feast during Christmas season is always mildly jarring. I’ve been tempted, at times, to wish that our bishops would move the feast to January 22. But that wouldn’t do, because yesterday’s feast is not about the heedless destruction of unborn life in the service of sexual freedom. Instead, the Holy Innocents should remind us of the Incarnation and its fearsome, world-bending consequences — which Herod dimly recognized, and desperately sought to avert. If we seek religious meaning in this grim biblical narrative, we will find it in metaphor: Imagine the infant Jesus is our faith in the Incarnation, and Herod’s soldiers are the slithering doubts and rank temptations that seek to snuff out that faith.

What if Herod had succeeded? What would the grand Nativity scene look like if it centered on an empty cradle? What would a vast and fragile human experiment like New York turn into without the countless prayers offered nightly in its narrow bedrooms that keep the city livable? More pointedly, what would the cityscape of our minds look like if the Infant had never come, or had died in His crib having never founded a Church?

 

I can’t think of a better way to keep Christmas meaningful right up through Epiphany than to wonder how we would live without it. So, then, let me pose for the reader some pointed questions — in the same spirit that some months ago I discussed “theological deal-killers,” the hypothetical events that might rightly shake our faith. This time, instead, consider not the causes but the consequences. My past two columns dealt with the natural law, the moral code that everyone can (in theory) derive from reason alone, without divine revelation. Today’s thought experiment should help us to see the limits of that law, which stands as a fragile skeleton, once stripped of the muscles of faith.

If you came to believe that God had not become man, what would you do? How would you think differently? Would you embrace the Jewish faith, as William F. Buckley once said he would? Could you wrap your head around the idea that, of all the peoples God created, He only takes a lively interest in one of them, leaving the rest to mill around worshiping rocks and rabbits? Still worse, there is no clear Jewish consensus on whether we’re offered an afterlife, whether heaven awaits the just or simply . . . oblivion. Without its completion in the New, the Old Testament seems like little more than a gorgeous historical document, deserving the same reverence we have for Antigone or Hamlet.

Without divine revelation, one should still continue discerning and trying to live by the natural law. How do we know what that is? Well, the Catholic Encyclopedia here is (as always) helpful:

According to St. Thomas, the natural law is “nothing else than the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law” (I-II.94). The eternal law is God’s wisdom, inasmuch as it is the directive norm of all movement and action. When God willed to give existence to creatures, He willed to ordain and direct them to an end. In the case of inanimate things, this Divine direction is provided for in the nature which God has given to each; in them determinism reigns. Like all the rest of creation, man is destined by God to an end, and receives from Him a direction towards this end. This ordination is of a character in harmony with his free intelligent nature. In virtue of his intelligence and free will, man is master of his conduct. Unlike the things of the mere material world he can vary his action, act, or abstain from action, as he pleases. Yet he is not a lawless being in an ordered universe. In the very constitution of his nature, he too has a law laid down for him, reflecting that ordination and direction of all things, which is the eternal law. The rule, then, which God has prescribed for our conduct, is found in our nature itself. Those actions which conform with its tendencies, lead to our destined end, and are thereby constituted right and morally good; those at variance with our nature are wrong and immoral.

All of which is very nice. But without the Church, would you really care? Drained as you’d be of faith that God acted visibly in history, would you believe yourself “destined by God to an end”? Perhaps your only end would be death. If that were true, just how hard would you try to obey the eternal law? What if the dictates of natural law seemed likely to ruin your earthly life — after which came only unconsciousness? Would you really act like Socrates or Marcus Aurelius? Can you say with any confidence you would not become a confidence man?

Many of us would still shun abortion, since killing helpless children is repugnant both to the reason and the gut. But would we be so solid on “exceptional” cases, such as grossly handicapped children? Really? Their suffering would no longer look like a mirror of Christ’s humiliation on the cross, but rather a tragic biological error, which helpful doctors could “correct.” How many of us would choose life if we had to raise a deformed child ourselves? Reason is clear, but in the absence of grace and faith, it is fearfully weak. At least mine is. How about yours?

 

Our reverence for the beauty and abundance of nature would remain. It might even expand, to fill up an emptied heaven. We might focus on fostering the goods we could see with our eyes; myself, I’d quit writing pro-family columns and teaching the liberal arts to focus on something useful — such as saving endangered species. Without the Church to tell me otherwise, I would not be so persuaded that birth control is an evil, unnatural thing — and instead I might see it as a positive good to preserve the other species on our planet from the explosion of human growth. Empty the Manger: What would you think?

End-of-life questions take on a different color when you cease to believe that suffering can be redemptive. How many of us could resist the “humane” Roman view of suicide and euthanasia?

Without the faith, would we really give a fig about sodomy? It might still make one’s skin crawl, but nevertheless the sensible thing to do might be to shrug and ask those well-groomed fellows in the tight cashmere sweaters to leave off frightening the horses. The natural law arguments against homosexuality would seem like weak tea, alongside the cruel demand that people renounce companionship and eros in service of some silent God and His abstract moral code. If your own sexuality were tragically bent that way, are you sure you would renounce it? Be honest: It’s Christmastime.

I won’t go through the whole political platform to see where my own preferences might change. But the reader might find it helpful to sort out his own laundry list of non-negotiable issues (divorce, sex education, parental rights) to see how many would get a lot shakier, or be rendered suddenly moot. Thinking through these unsettling questions is helpful, because it shows us just how much of what we think is the fruit of plain, unaided reason is really the blessed shadow cast by Christ. Knowing that could make us more merciful when dealing with unbelievers — and, God willing, more persuasive.

The next time I address someone who hasn’t been given the faith to adore the Babe, I will remember how vain and clueless I would be, if I were walking in his moccasins. I’ll recall that his Infant has been slain, and in his heart somewhere he weeps like the mothers of Bethlehem. He kneels before the Manger, but it is empty and reeks of blood.

Image: Massacre of the Innocents by Peter Paul Rubens

John Zmirak

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John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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