“The Massacre of the Innocents

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken January 21, 1996

My 3-year old son was the first one to notice them, lying in a jumble, at the bottom of the page. “What are those from, Mommy?” What should a mother say, to her toddler, when he is surprised by sin? What should a mother say, to her toddler, when the jumble at the bottom of the page is a pile of corpses?

They had been reading the Christmas story, the story of the Son of God coming into the world, paraphrased by Madeleine L’Engle. The pictures were full color reproductions of Giotto’s paintings of the life of Christ in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. They had come to the painting entitled “The Massacre of the Innocents,” which depicts King Herod’s soldiers searching for the baby Jesus and putting the infants of Judea to the sword [see The Glorious Impossible, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990]. The results of their grisly labors were lying underfoot, naked at the bottom of the page. What should a mother say?

Well, at least those soldiers of Herod were not driving a sword through the hearts of their own children. You might just be able to explain a man hating another man’s child. But how could you possibly explain to a child that some mommies and daddies don’t love their own babies? How could you possibly explain to a child the damnable doctrine of abortion: that somebody else has to die because I want to be happy?

The fact is that there are a lot of corpses lying in a jumble at the bottom of American society. The Associated Press reported earlier this week that an Ohio state law restricting late-term abortions has been declared unconstitutional by a U.S. District Court. Late-term abortions, which were once banned, and are now deemed constitutionally protected, are too gruesome to describe in this sanctuary. We must avert our gaze, like we avert our gaze from Giotto’s “Massacre of the Innocents.” And yet a United States judge has declared,not simply that this ghastly procedure may be allowed, but that it must be allowed if America’s constitutional democracy is to remain intact. In order to remain standing, he is saying, we must stand on top of the corpses of these children.

That is why it is good for us, on the third Sunday of every January, to remember the massacre of the innocents. That is why it is good for us on this Sanctity of Life Sunday, to say something about what the Bible teaches about abortion, to be reminded that one proper response to abortion is abhorrence.

You shall not murder [Exodus 20:13]. This is the foundational biblical principle of the sanctity of human life, affirmed in the Ten Commandments. This is part of God’s charter for human conduct? Why shouldn’t you murder? Because men and women and children are made in the image of God. So God created man in his own image, the Scripture says, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them [Genesis 1:27]. Men and women and children are like coins that bear the impression of the sovereign of the land. To deface such a coin is an affront to the ruler who is represented on the face of the coin. Murder is not simply an offense against humanity, but also an offense against the God who made humanity.

But what about abortion? Does abortion count as murder? Is the sanctity of human life violated when a doctor removes a fetus from a womb? Does a fetus bear the image of God, or only children who have drawn their first breath?

There are many things that might be said about the uniqueness of the human being that is formed when sperm and egg unite, about the life and vitality of the fetus in the womb, about his mental capacities, about his response to pain, about his experience of relationship with his father and mother prior to birth. To watch the ultrasound of a fetus in the womb is to have a thousand proofs of his humanity.

But even without all these things, it is enough to know that a child is created by God, from the moment of conception onwards. The Lordship of Jesus Christ over the human being does not begin at birth, but extends back into the womb. This is what David had to say about the work of God within a mother’s womb:

For you created my inmost being;

you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

your works are wonderful,

I know that full well.

My frame was not hidden from you

when I was made in the secret place.

When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,

your eyes saw my unformed body. [Psalm 139:13-16a]

These verses speak of the intimate relationship between God and the unborn child. The creative act of God begins at conception, with the formation of the child’s inmost being and the fashioning of her frame. What the psalmist says about the unformed body has particular bearing on the evil of abortion. A woman and her doctor may hide an unborn child from the world, but the child is not hidden from God. Even an embryo is a fearful and wonderful work of God, knit together and woven together by God himself. Even before a fetus can be visibly recognized as a human being, she is known by God in a personal way. And that is what it means to be a person, to be a being to which God relates in a personal way.

The Bible teaches that abortion is a sin. But it does more than simply condemn sin; it also offers forgiveness for sin.

I wish my son had not discovered those babies lying in a jumble at the bottom of the page. More than that, I wish that page was not in the book at all. The book itself holds a certain horror for me now, the horror of the violence committed, the horror of the dark secret uncovered. More than that, I wish that King Herod had never tried to kill Jesus Christ, that there had never been a need for Giotto to paint “The Massacre of the Innocents.” But there was a need. The massacre did occur, and to ignore the infants at the bottom of the page would be to trample them all over again. Giotto needed to paint those infants as they actually were because he needed to present humanity as it actually is, in all of its sinfulness and barbarity. For it was into that very humanity that Jesus Christ entered. And he entered it just because of its sinfulness and barbarity. Jesus Christ came in the flesh to bring sinners to justice. And… and… to make atonement for sin.

On the walls of the Scrovegni Chapel there is another painting, a painting of still great horror. It is a painting of Jesus Christ, dying on a cross to pay for the sins of the whole world [1 John 2:2]. Giotto needed to paint that picture because it, too, belongs on the pages of the human story. What the crucified Christ offers is forgiveness for sins, even the most abhorrent of sins, even the sins of infanticide and abortion. There is a soldier in Giotto’s “Crucifixion,” holding a spear and gazing at Christ on the cross, and I wonder if he may have been one of Herod’s soldiers. If so, and if he had come to the cross to repent for his sins and trust in Jesus for forgiveness, then even his evil part in “The Massacre of the Innocents” would have been forgiven. For the sacrifice of Christ is sufficient for any sinner who repents… even for the abortionist… even for the woman who has abandoned her own child… even for you.

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