On this Holy Innocents Day, my mind goes back to Salisbury Cathedral where I was ordained. The cathedral is twinned with Chartres Cathedral, and the year after my ordination a huge new East window was put into Salisbury – an incredibly beautiful and powerful window, made in Chartres at the famous workshop of Gabriel Loire – and incorporating that marvelous blue so characteristic of Chartres. The window is called “Prisoners of conscience” and it was dedicated by Yehudi Menuhin, who had worked so tirelessly for Amnesty International.
I sat early one morning, as the Eucharist was being celebrated at the altar beneath the window. As the morning sun poured through, it was like sitting in front of a sheet of precious jewels. At first, the glass seems a shimmering, abstract array of colors – but slowly the eye makes out faces – haunted faces, faces behind barbed wire, faces filled will sorrow behind bars. Holy, innocent faces, the countless men, women and children who suffer and die. Often unknown, unrecorded, every year.
And yet, as the eye moves up the window, it gets drawn into a great upward moving swirl of light and energy, and suddenly there, radiant, and now dominating the whole window, is the Cross, and there, the face of the Son of God, not unlike the faces at the foot of the cross, the face of the Son of God, holy and innocent.
Despite the dark subject matter, the artist has created a work of art that is filled with hope. He has written in glass and color and light, the same message as the writer of the “Book of Revelation.” There shall be an end to death, and to mourning and crying and pain, for the first things have passed away. I prefer the New International Version of Revelation 21 verse 4: “The Old order has passed away.”
Fast forward twenty years to December 2001. On the front page of the New York Times was a picture of a priest saying Mass over the debris of what was the World Trade Center – saying Mass at the foot of a tangled piece of wreckage formed into the shape of a Cross.
The old order of sin and death still wreaks its havoc – and the holy innocents continue to suffer – but the Cross proclaims in all its stark glory, that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. “For the old order has passed away.”
Twelve years later, the last day of 2013. Our newspapers record with grim detachment the suffering of the Holy Innocents. A review of the year. A young woman shocked and stunned, with her legs shattered in the Boston Marathon. The haunting photograph of a Syrian woman loudly wailing, with her arms outstretched before the body of her child, killed by a chemical attack near Damascus – “Rachel, weeping for her children.” Here are the Holy Innocents of 2013.
And how should we respond, as we gather at the foot of the Cross, on the last day of this year? We come, first, as members of Christ’s body, to pledge, each one of us, to do all that we can, body and soul, to live and work for the relief of suffering, and for the restoration of justice and dignity for those holy innocents who suffer most on our world.
Secondly, we gather at the foot of the cross, because it is the cross which gives meaning and ultimately hope – real hope – to a world which could so easily descend into despair and hopelessness. In 2013 the old order of sin and death still wreaks its havoc, but it will never have the final word. The cross proclaims in all its stark glory that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
The cross proclaims that the old order has passed away. That we have passed from death to life. May each of us, in 2014, be bearers of this message of hope to a world desperate to hear it.
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