Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Happy Infant, Early Blest

We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped.”  Psalm 124:7

A few yards from the door of this chapel lies the grave of Samuel Griffin, the first person to be buried on this spot.  He died on October 11, 1792, accidentally drowned in the lake at the age of four years, six months.  On his stone, you can still barely pick out the epitaph verses:
            Happy infant, early blest
            Here in peaceful slumber rest
            Early rescu’d from the cares
            Which increase with growing years.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I find that epitaph hard to swallow.  It’s hard for me to imagine those as the words chosen by his mother, the ones that seemed to fit best as she held him dripping and cold in her lap at the shore of the lake. 

I guess it just sounds too easy.  Killed tragically while still a young boy, his whole life ahead of him—is that “happy infant, early blest.”  I’m sure they tried their best, but no one could save him, he had to die in such a frightening way—is that really “early rescued from the cares?”  Surely these words would speak only to someone who wasn’t ready to be honest about the real devastation of such a death—surely they’re trying to put a bright face on things when everything is falling apart inside?  

They certainly aren’t the sort of thing I would recommend bereaved parents to read and ponder.  They’re not at all like the advice I received in seminary about how to console those who mourn.  It’s not what we train Stephen Ministers to say.

And yet you can find words much like them on the gravestones of several other young children in this churchyard, you find them all over the old cemeteries of our land and many others.  The words on Sam Griffin’s tombstone aren’t the exception, they’re the norm.  Something much like them were what most bereaved parents who could afford a monument chose to leave behind in his day.  Those who die young are blessed.  They are spared the corruptions, worries and pain that a long life will surely bring.  They fly to God, and the perfect peace of eternal rest.

And something much like this is precisely the message that was proclaimed at the heart of today’s festival, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, for most of Christian history.  The liturgy we use now is rather uncomfortable with that.  Maybe you noticed that our collect we used today tries to focus attention on the tragedy of innocent suffering—we remember the holy innocents, it says, because they are like so many other people who are treated unjustly.  The modern collect suggests that the point of the feast is to remind us to work for justice so that this sort of thing won’t happen any more.

But the older prayers, and the verses and hymns written for meditation talk about this day as one of victory for those children of Bethlehem killed by Herod’s soldiers.  They have escaped, as our Psalm says, escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowler.  God has taken them from this vale of sorrows and delivered them to the glories of paradise.  One medieval hymn I stumbled on yesterday reads,
            Fear not, little flock
            The prowling lion’s tooth
            For the Good Shepherd will give you
            The pastures of heaven.

Even in the face of this awful tragedy, God is to be praised for His mercy and saving help.  Herod’s cruelty does not have the last word.  In the end it is all glory.

I generally find that those truths of the spiritual life that disturb me the most often have something important to teach me.  But they must be looked at squarely, taken on their own terms, not explained away.  What if the death of an innocent child was actually a blessing?  Well, I suppose that would be the case only if heaven were in fact an immensely greater place than the earth, if a minute in the presence of God were far better than years of life here in this world.  And to talk of being rescued from corruption here—well, that too would be true only if this world were really corrupting, if sin really were an awful thing that destroys life and beauty and joy.  It would be true only if we, in the end, must account for each one of our sins, stand before the great judge with blackened consciences. 

From that perspective, well, innocence is a very valuable thing indeed, the most precious thing of all, save the life-giving grace of God.  And that matter of God triumphing through it all—well, that would be so only if we were prepared to let our faith see on ahead of where our reason can follow, if we yearned to know God with simple hearts instead of thrusting minds. 

In the end, I suppose it comes down to a matter of perspective, a question of from where you stand as you survey the life given to us all.  It depends on what things stand at the front of your reckoning, and which must follow after. 

I don’t think it would be honest to say that I would reach first for the lines on Sam Griffin’s tomb were I to lose one of my own precious sons.  But I think I would need to try to understand how those might be speaking the truth, a truth that with God’s help, I might come to understand and even embrace.  In the face of tragedy, it is always wise to look for the loving, saving, victorious work of God. 

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