Weeping in Bethlehem: A service of healing for those who suffer the pain of abuse

When you stand in your congregation and look out over the faces of men, women, and children, do you ever wonder who has been abused? Perhaps you have seen bruises on a child's arms or a woman parishioner with a black eye. Sometimes the effects of abuse are obvious. More often the bruises and scars are hidden—under clothing, under sad eyes, under years of trying to forget or compensate. Abuse is not something most of us are comfortable thinking about or being confronted with. Yet it is likely that every congregation includes members who have been abused in some way (physically, verbally, emotionally, or sexually) at some time in their lives.

Are clergy prepared to help someone who was abused? Are survivors prepared to get help from pastors? Our secular culture encourages people who have been abused to turn to professionals for assistance in their journey towards health. "Professionals" in this sense do not often include pastors. In one way, this is good—most pastors are not prepared professionally for dealing with the task of counseling someone along the long journey of recovery. But in another way this is not good— Christians in recovery desperately need assistance from someone who understands life holistically, who recognizes a spiritual dimension to all of life, for all people. To deal with recovery from only a secular world-and-life view denies the Reformed perspective that all of life is redeemed by God.

This liturgy was written to provide a special worship service for those who have been abused. Friends, family, and support people of victims may also wish to attend. The service is designed to take place shortly after Christmas; it uses the massacre of the innocent children of Bethlehem by Herod as a means of introducing the issue of abuse. In addition to the readings from Matthew regarding the "slaughter of the innocents," the worship service features the laying on of hands.

An ecumenical worship service is held on Holy Innocents Day each year in Syracuse, New York. Letters of invitation are sent to local churches in advance of the service to encourage pastors in each church to invite those people who might be interested in the special service.



Call to Worship (Responsive)

Our help is in the name of the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. (Ps. 124:8)

God is light.
In him there is no darkness at all. (1 John 1:5)
Mercy, peace, and love be yours in abundance, (lude 2)

Hymn: "Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life"
PsH 602, PH 408, RL 482, TWC 433

Prayer of Confession

Have mercy upon us, O God, according to your steadfast love. According to your generous mercies, clear the sin from our lives. Wash away all our iniquity and cleanse us from wrongdoing. For we know that we have sinned against you, and our weaknesses are always before us. Holy God, we know also that others have sinned against us and their grievous wrongs are often on our minds. Release us from anger that will not go away and bitterness that produces hate. Create in us pure hearts, O God, and give growth to renewed spirits within us. Do not be distant from us or hide us from your comforting Spirit. Restore to us the joy of your free salvation and sustain us with a willing spirit. Through Jesus Christ our Savior, Amen.

—Adopted from Psalm 51

Sung Prayer: "Lord, Have Mercy upon Us" (Kyrie)
PsH 258, PH 572, TWC 821

Lord, have mercy upon us.
Christ, have mercy upon us.
Lord, have mercy upon us.

Assurance of Pardon

Assurance for us is found in the words of Isaiah, "Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has born? As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you," says the Lord. (Isa. 49:15; 66:13)

Summary of the Law

Response to Pardon: "Oh, for a Thousand Tongues to Sing" PsH 501, PH 466, RL 362, 363, TH 164, TWC 130


Prayer for Illumination

Old Testament Scripture Reading: Jeremiah 31:15-20

Responsive Reading: Psalm 3 (NRSV)

O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising up against me;

Many are saying to me, "There is no help for you in God."

But you, O LORD, are a shield around me; my glory, and the one who lifts up my head.

I cry aloud to the LORD, and he answers me from his holy hill.

I lie down and sleep; I wake again, for the LORD sustains me.

I am not afraid of tens of thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around.

Rise up, O Lord! Deliver me, O my God!

For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;

you break the teeth of the wicked.
Deliverance belongs to the LORD.
May your blessing be on your people.

Hymn: "Unto Us a Boy Is Born" RL 226, Oxford Carols, Book I
stanzas 1-2

Epistle Reading: James 5:7-11

"Unto Us a Boy Is Born"
stanzas 3-5

Gospel Reading: Matthew 2:16-18



Affirmation of Faith: The Nicene Creed



Laying on of Hands

[The elders and minister take their places at the front of the church. The minister saysf "Those who would like to receive prayer and the laying on of hands may come forward at this time." As each participant kneels, an elder or minister lays hands on the head of the participant and prays, "In the name of the Lord I lay my hands on you. May God use my hands, which are caring and safe, to help you heal from the effects of other hands, which were uncaring and abusive. In the name of God our loving Creator, Christ our true redeemer, and the Holy Spirit our tender comforter. Amen.]

Prayer After the Laying on of Hands (Unison)

God of all things new, in whom we live and move and find new being, we pour out to you our hearts. Redeem our pasts, refresh our present, and refashion our futures in order that we may more confidently take our place among your priesthood of all believers. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Prayer of Thanksgiving, Intercession, and the Lord's

Hymn: "Jesus Shall Reign" PsH 412, PH 423, RL 233, TH 441, TWC 745

Parting Blessing




During medieval times, the stories of Scripture were often told in drama. The Pageant of the Shearman and Tailors (15th century) included this lament to be sung by the women of Bethlehem in the play, just before Herod's soldiers come in to slaughter their children. This lament captures their grief with open sounds and even a clashing dissonance on F and F-sharp just before the end.


The following resources can be helpful to clergy and other church leaders who are called to respond to the challenge of providing appropriate pastoral care to those who have been abused.

Allender, Dan B. The Wounded Heart: Hope for Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, © 1990.

Bateman, Lana L. Bible Promises for the Healing Journey. Westwood, NJ: Barbour and Company, Inc., ©1991.

Clarke, Rita-Lou. Pastoral Care of Battered Women. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, © 1986.

Courtois, Christine A. Healing the Incest Wound. New York: Norton and Company, © 1988.

Crabb, Larry. Inside Out. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, © 1988.

Understanding People. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Corporation, © 1987.

Elliot, Lynda and Vicki Tanner. My Father's Child: Help and Healing for the Victims of Emotional, Sexual, and Physical Abuse. Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth and Hyatt, Publishers, Inc., © 1988.

Edward Hart Schreur is pastor of the Reformed Church of Syracuse (New York).


Tamera Veenstra Schreur is a family therapist.


Reformed Worship 45 © September 1997, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.