One afternoon some years ago I was driving around town on errands when I heard a news report about a suicide bombing in a crowded Baghdad marketplace that killed 68 people and wounded another 120. Normally I lend only half an ear to the daily dose of mayhem that passes for news, but this story was different. The reporter was interviewing a distraught woman bystander. “There was a mother with a baby in her arms,” she cried. “The explosion went off, and the baby flew in the air and never came down again.” I turned off the car radio, unable to listen further. I thought of my own granddaughter, then not quite 15 months old. Our daughter-in-law had just e-mailed a snapshot of this child sitting in her high chair clutching a spoon, her chubby face and hands smeared with chocolate pudding. The thought that an innocent child like this could become the victim of a terrorist attack – or become “collateral damage” in an anti-terrorist strike – was unbearable to me.
Among the feast days of the Roman Catholic Church is one for the Holy Innocents, the children in Bethlehem slain on orders of King Herod in a fruitless effort to eliminate the Christ child as a rival to his throne. This feast day comes only three days after Christmas, striking a jarring note in an otherwise joyous season. The incident is mentioned in only one of the gospels and in no other contemporary account, raising questions about its historical authenticity. History otherwise has plenty to say about Herod, who was perfectly capable of such brutality, having murdered various of his own family members, including two sons.
Whatever its historical accuracy, the story has elements that recur in a number of ancient legends. In the Qur’an, the tyrant Nimrod orders the killing of all newborn babies after astrologers warn that his rule will be threatened by the birth of Abraham, who survives. Moses survives the pharaoh’s order to kill all Hebrew babies and grows up to lead his people to freedom. In Hindu mythology, an evil king named Kamsa murders each of his sister’s children at birth to thwart a prophecy that he would be killed by one of her progeny, only to die at the hands of her eighth son, Krishna, who had been smuggled to safety as an infant.
The retelling of essentially the same story in widely divergent cultures and epochs suggests the key elements are archetypal. First, there is the appearance of a child as an avatar embodying goodness, usually in fulfillment of prophecy. The powers and principalities of this world cannot be indifferent to such a one. There follows a “slaughter of the innocents” to eradicate the threat. Although a terrible price must be paid, evil does not prevail. When all is darkness, there is no awareness of evil. But once a light comes into the world, the evil that lurks in darkness becomes visible. It is a moment of utmost peril but also an essential one for the redemption of the world. Just as light illuminates the things that belong to the darkness, so the darkness sets off the things that shine in the light. We need not be afraid. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
“Baghdad Blast Kills Dozens,” Radio Report on NPR’s Day to Day by Dina Temple-Ralston, March 7, 2008