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Meanings of Christmas: A season when adults must be led by children

They have no obituaries but the countless young lives which are snuffed out before their time have something to teach us about the fragility of life
WHY IS it that the Church surrounds the birth of the Christ-child with death? His birthday is followed by a day named for St Stephen, the first martyr. Tomorrow is the feast of the murdered archbishop Thomas a Becket. And today? Today there is sobbing and loudly lamenting. It is the sound of women weeping for their children and refusing to be comforted because they are no more.

For after the story of the baby born in a manger and the angels and the shepherds being overcome with joy comes a less celebrated tale - the account of King Herod, who felt so threatened by the birth of Christ he tried to do away with him by commanding all male children in Bethlehem under the age of two be killed. Jesus was lucky. His dad, Joseph, was warned in a dream this would happen so the family fled to Egypt and stayed there until Herod was dead. But what about those whose dreams were not so propitious?

The day after Boxing Day, with the bubble-and-squeak eaten and grandparents duly dispatched to their respective homes, Christians remember the children who were killed. This year there was a Millennium Memorial Mass and Candle Service at St George's Cathedral, Southwark, for bereaved parents on Thursday 16 December. It was addressed by Diana Lamplugh, the mother of Suzy, the estate agent who went missing 13 years ago and whose body has never been found.

I understand that for practical reasons it is better for most people to have such a memorial before Christmas. Yet in terms of the Church's year, however, 27 December, which is called the Feast of the Holy Innocents, seems to me to be the most apt day on which to share our sorrow. So who do we include amongst the Holy Innocents that are remembered by the Church on this day? Obviously in remembering those children slaughtered by Herod we also remember today's youngsters who have been murdered by the greed, jealousy or insanity of others.

For the most part these are deaths that are public. The more horrendous the murder, the more likely we are to know about it. Who has not heard of James Bulger? Who cannot remember 1996 and the children who were killed at the primary school in Dunblane?

But there are thousands of other children who have not been murdered but who died more quietly, more accidentally - those who have been killed through leukaemia, meningitis, cot death or strangulation by the umbilical cord. In fact there are not just thousands. There are tens of thousands. And these are Holy Innocents too.

The statistics are staggering. In 1998 there were 9,670 infant deaths in the UK, an infant being defined as anyone aged between 28 days and one year old. There were also 6,680 babies who died between the age of one week and 27 days and 14,660 who died between being born and their sixth day. That adds up to more than 30,000 children dying before they reach their first birthday, and that's just in one year in this country. It doesn't include those who die through famine and disease in countries that are much poorer than our own. Nor does it number those who have died before being born. There cannot be clear figures for these, but it is estimated that between one in three and one in five pregnancies ends in miscarriage. Likewise, in 1997, in England and Wales approximately one- fifth of all pregnancies was terminated through abortion.

The deaths of such young people are often hidden losses. There are no great obituaries published of those who have not yet learnt to speak, just the grief of friends and family that never goes away. "Why?" seems to be the obvious question under the weight of such heaviness. What sort of a God can allow such suffering? How come His own son lived to the age of 33 when we have children who have never make it into adulthood?

We are offered no answer to that. Indeed, what strikes me about the biblical story of the slaughter of the under-twos is the utter senselessness of the brutality. At least when Jesus died he was saving the world. What was the point of the death of the Holy Innocents? There are no clever answers, just the acknowledgement that this Christmas there are literally tens of thousands of people who are feeling the loss of their child all the more poignantly because it is the season when we are celebrating another child's birth. The loss of a child is so much harder to bear than the loss of an adult because it goes against all our instincts to protect our young, because it seems so unnatural, because it is the loss of the future rather than the past, the loss of something that should have happened but never did.

It is important that we all notice that, because grief is not just personal. It belongs to the whole community. In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah tells us that a little child will lead them. Christmas is a time when adults learn again how we can be led by children, even those children who have died. If we allow them, they can take us with them to the place where they have gone and to that first fragile flickering flame of hope.