According to the gospel of Mathew (2:16-18), the Holy Innocents were the children Herod the Great massacred in Bethlehem in his attempt to kill the child Jesus. Since the sixth century, the link between the massacre of these innocents and the birth of Christ has been commemorated in Catholic liturgies shortly after Christmas - on Dec. 28.
Here is the full text. "Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: 'A voice was heard in Ramah, Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning. Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.'"
I thought of these Scriptures when like the rest of the nation I was numbed in grief over the massacre of the Holy Innocents in Sandy Hook, Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
Weeks later as I write this column, I still weep. Like Rachel, I weep for those children and their families. But unlike Rachel my faith tells me that they are not "no more." They returned to the loving arms of God as their earthly lives came to a horrible and final end.
The Newtown tragedy highlights the ancient question about the existence of evil. It is a question as old as the Scriptures and there has never been an easy answer. Evil has its roots in our own hearts and in our freedom to act - a freedom often distorted by families and society.
Newtown has reopened the long-simmering debate in this country on gun control. Even many hunters and NRA members admit that background checks on all prospective gun buyers would be appropriate even at gun shows and on the Internet. Many also support the reinstatement of the assault weapon ban and restrictions on high capacity ammunition clips. Who needs these military weapons of war for hunting or for protection?
No one is advocating depriving anyone of a rifle for hunting or a handgun for protection. But as many, including our President, have said, it is time to do something. At Columbine 12 high school students and one teacher were killed. At Virginia Tech 32 people were slaughtered. At Tucson Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and others were shot down. At Aurora 12 people attending a movie were killed and 58 wounded. Then there was the massacre at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Indeed, it is time - past time - to do something.
There is no doubt that under the Second Amendment people have the right to bear arms. But a right to buy a Bushmaster AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle at Wal-Mart? The National Rifle Association lobbies to protect Second Amendment rights, but often the NRA is short-sighted, irrational and paranoid. I think the NRA is more interested in protecting the corporations and their $12 billion dollar firearm business than it is in defending the rights of hunters and other gun owners.
There are more guns in the United States than there are people. Firearms kill more than 30,000 people each year in this country. More than 30 people are shot and murdered every day by handguns. According to the United Nations agency on small arms, the average annual number of gun homicides in Japan is fewer than 50; it is fewer than 250 in Germany. It is more than 10,000 in the United States!
We have to do something to protect people and especially children. Recently in Afghanistan, a landmine killed 10 young girls collecting firewood. Their families too are grieving just as deeply as the families who lost children in Newtown. Those Afghan children are also our children. And their lives too were violently and prematurely cut short.
But back to the United States. I know the safety of children in our schools is complicated - legally, politically and economically. There are mental health issues, as well as a need for continued vigilance in our schools. And there is an immediate need for gun control to stop this carnage of innocent students. Although we will never completely eliminate these senseless killings, gun control could greatly reduce them.
We should not let the perfect become the enemy of the good. For God's sake (literally) we must do something now to prevent the massacre of even more innocents.
Daniel O'Rourke lives in Cassadaga, New York. His column appears on the second and fourth Thursday each month. A grandfather, Dan is a married Catholic priest. His new book, "The Living Spirit" is a collection of previous columns. To read about that book or send comments on this column visit his website www.danielcorourke.com/