The Fourth Day of Christmas
After a quick workout with Emily and Barb, and an even quicker shower and breakfast, Ali joined Emily and her family on the front pew of the chapel for the Sunday church service. Once again, she recognized several people she’d met over the last few days. Even Barb and James made it to the service.
The light from the Moravian star sent its beams over the murals and down onto the Holy Family. Ali gazed at the trio with a smile, feeling her heart open, waiting for today’s message to fill it. After an opening prayer and hymn, Cole stepped up to the pulpit to speak.
“Today is the Fourth Day of Christmas,” he said. “If you’re following the devotional, the gift God has given us today is the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We will find the text for the sermon today in the second chapter of Matthew, verse sixteen.”
Ali proudly opened the Bible app she’d recently installed on her tablet, and quickly found the book, chapter, and verse while Emily and Ryan shared their Bibles with the children.
Cole continued his sermon. “The Fourth Day of Christmas is the Feast Day of the Holy Innocents, the children who were killed by Herod in hopes of destroying the One whom the Wise Men described as the King of the Jews.” He paused and grasped the sides of the pulpit, visibly anguished by the subject.
“It can be difficult to preach some things from the Bible,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to us. Couldn’t God have prevented these children from being killed? If God loves us, why do awful tragedies happen—not only then, but now? I can stand here and say how God’s ways are not our ways, that now we understand in part and there will come a time when we will understand fully, that God works all things for good for those called according to His purpose.”
He gazed out over the congregation, an expression of frustration clouding his countenance. “These words, true as they are, are not always a comfort to those involved in a tragedy that harms the most vulnerable and most innocent members of our society.
“The Holy Innocents were boys between the ages of newborn and two years old. Bethlehem wasn’t a large village. There were perhaps a dozen boys of that age. They were sentenced to death by the paranoid fear of a man whom they could never harm. Their deaths made no more sense than the random shootings of schoolchildren make today.”
Ali swallowed, imagining the horror of the slaughter. It wasn’t hard to imagine; the news was often filled with pictures of small children injured by war, by poverty, by people they should have been able to trust. Beside her, Emily had placed a protective arm around Lizzie. Ryan had done the same for Tyler.
Cole continued. “Today we remember these Holy Innocents, and remember, too, that even as an infant, Jesus faced persecution.
“Let us now take comfort from Jesus Himself.” He turned pages in his Bible. “In the eighteenth chapter of Matthew, the disciples ask Jesus, who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? Jesus calls a child to Him and sets the child before the disciples as an example of who is the greatest in God’s kingdom. A person who is like a child: Trusting. Unpretentious. Humble, not conscious of status. Open to wonder.” His gaze went to his niece and nephew and he smiled. “Hearts not hardened by bitterness or disappointment.
“Jesus went further and said, “Whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.””
Cole leaned forward, emphasizing his point. “Let me repeat: for someone who perpetrates harm and causes a child to sin, death by drowning is better than what God has in store for them.”
A shudder went up Ali’s back. No one made a sound around her. The congregation sat completely still and silent.
“Jesus offers consolation in verse ten.” Cole read from his Bible. “‘See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.’” Cole came around the pulpit. “It’s a comfort to know that angels who watch over children have direct access to God.”
Walking to the altar rail, Cole picked up a paper angel from several that had been placed on it. Holding it up, he said, “I’m hanging this angel on the Chrismon tree in memory and honor of the Holy Innocents.”
With dignity, he walked to the tree and placed the ornament on a branch. Turning back to the congregation, he said, “I invite you to place angels on the tree, in memory of other innocents—those who have been taken from us, children who have lost their innocence due to violence or abuse, or as a gesture of prayer for all children.”
Several in the congregation stood and moved forward. Cindy was the first to pick up an angel. Facing the congregation, she said, “I place this angel on the tree for children affected by depression.”
Others left angels in memory of children lost in shootings and senseless violence, for children who were refugees. Some people didn’t say a word, just simply and solemnly put an angel on the tree.
Ali’s hands grew clammy and her breathing quickened. With each angel placed on the tree—for children suffering from cancer, neglected children, children waiting for adoption—her chest tightened, empathizing with their pain, their confusion, their questions, until it dawned on her it wasn’t their issues affecting her, but her own.
She remembered the pain and isolation due to the injuries she’d received in the wreck. Recovering hadn’t led to being reunited to her close-knit family, but having to face her mother’s death. She and Karen had lost their innocence in the crash. The world would never again be as safe and secure as when their mother was alive.
In the hospital and at home she’d been told over and over to be brave. To her, that meant denying her pain and bewilderment, doing as she was told and not asking questions. She showed the world a plucky spirit, even as her family fell apart.
Blinking back tears, she noticed Cole watching her, raising his eyebrows slightly in question. Quickly, she lowered her eyes from his, caught in the past, in the need to deny the hurt, the grief . . .
Slowly, calm and light seeped into her heart. Cole had said—no, the Bible said there was comfort for all children, and for the child she had been. God knew what had happened, and angels prayed for her.
Ali closed her eyes and basked in the healing of God’s care. Without consciously making the decision, she rose and walked to the communion rail, taking up a paper angel, and making her way to the tree. Cole nodded encouragement to her, and she looked out at the people sitting in the pews. She lifted the angel. “This is for children who have lost a loved one and don’t know how to express their grief.” She hung it on the tree and resumed her place with the congregation.
Cole went back to the pulpit and offered a prayer. Everyone stood and sang a hymn together, then greeted one another as the service ended and they left the chapel. Ali received genuine warmth and friendship from several people, which further healed the hurts from so long ago. She wasn’t isolated. She wasn’t alone. God loved her, and angels prayed for her.