Holy Innocents is a unique day on the Christian calendar. Usually, on a feast day, we commemorate saints whose noble deeds have been passed down either through Holy Scripture or by tradition and history. On Holy Innocents, however, we observe an event which marked the brutal deaths of an untold number of infants and toddlers.
The day which we refer to as Holy Innocents is more fully known as the Commemoration of the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents. Sometimes the word “slaughter” is replaced with the word “massacre.” In either case, these are hard and cruel words which we prefer to not have to speak of in church. We might manage to work them in a time or two during Lent and Good Friday, but we prefer to avoid them. We certainly do not like the idea of joining “slaughter” and “massacre” with innocent children but we are remiss if we neglect this dark hour in the life of Jesus Christ.
Saint Matthew alone recounts the event. The wise men from the East, having visited the Holy Family and presented their offerings, were warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod and thus return to their home by another passage. Saint Joseph is likewise warned of a great danger looming for his Son and takes his wife and child and flees to Egypt. Then, St. Matthew tells us,
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.” (2:16-18)
We do not know how many children were murdered by Herod’s command. Some say that the children compose the 144,000 martyrs in the Book of the Revelation (14:3). Others argue that such a number of male children under the age of two was impossible for a town the size of Bethlehem even including its surrounding. The number, they argue, was realistically more along the lines of a few dozen. Yet how much difference does that make?
A few months ago, an Orlando jury acquitted Casey Anthony in the murder of her two-year old daughter Caylee. There was outrage throughout the nation, rightfully so. The guilt or innocence of the child’s mother was practically beside the point. The outrage was over the fact that a beautiful young girl had been murdered and her murderer, whoever that may be, would not see justice (at least not in this world). Caylee Anthony, as beautiful and innocent as she was, was only one girl. Dozens of equally beautiful and innocent young boys were murdered in Bethlehem. As such, Herod the Great has come down through time as one of the single-most despicable beasts in the whole canon of Holy Scripture. The Holy Innocents whom Herod murdered have come down through time as martyrs. That, however, is a bit odd.
The word martyr typically suggests someone who dies for their faith. A Christian police officer who dies in the line of duty, hero though he may be, normally would not be considered a martyr unless he were killed because of his Christianity. Likewise, a woman murdered in an incident of domestic violence would not be considered a martyr, so why are these unnamed and unnumbered murdered children considered martyrs?
St. Augustine declared that these children were indeed martyrs because “they are the first buds of the Church killed by the frost of persecution; they died not only for Christ, but in his stead.” Lovely though this quote may be, it still leaves a question unanswered. The origin of the word martyr is the word witness. As we all know, a witness is someone who gives testimony. Typically, a martyr testifies by their life and death to the glory of God. To what, then, did these unnamed and unnumbered murdered children testify?
I believe that the Holy Innocents testify that, first, the enemy of our souls loves attacking children and, secondly, he channels great effort in to doing so particularly before a great move of the Lord. Why would the enemy not love attacking children? The death of a child both devastates and demoralizes. I have been at funerals of great-grandparents in their seventies, eighties, and nineties and seen loved ones smiling and telling fond stories of their departed loved ones with a laugh. I have never seen a single smile at the funeral of a child. The death of a child rocks us to our core because we know that it is so completely wrong. Although in some cases, it seems as though an attack from the enemy may be worse if the child survives. We see in the recent instances of sexual abuse by clergy that those who have been victimized reject the True Faith which was vainly professed by their abuser. They reject their loving Creator and Redeemer because their wounds were too severe. In some cases, they even become enemies of the Cross. That tragedy is overwhelming. It was for this reason that Our Lord proclaimed, “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea.” (St. Mark 9:42)
Both before the Exodus and at the beginning of the Incarnation, the enemy used a tyrannical king in attempt to stop a mighty move of God. We have already seen the passage that applies to the Holy Innocents. A parallel passage can be found in Exodus 1:15-22 where Pharaoh, in an attempt to prevent a Hebrew uprising, first ordered the midwives to kill any sons born to the Hebrews and then, failing that, ordered the Hebrew sons to be cast into the Nile. In each case, the enemy failed. The Hebrews did rise up under Moses, whom Pharaoh had failed to kill. Not only did the Hebrews leave Egypt but the Egyptians suffered the Ten Plagues culminating in the death of their own firstborn sons. With Herod the Great, the tyrant was so desperate to maintain his own power that he actually executed three of his own sons for high treason. The Emperor Augustus was quoted as saying that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than his son. At least, he continued, the Jews do not kill pigs. Nevertheless, Herod’s reign came to a pathetic end and Jesus, whom he failed to murder, has become the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords and His Kingdom shall never end. The tyrants failed.
So what of today? Since January 22, 1973, an estimated 50 million children have been murdered in utero by legalized abortion in America. This number far exceeds the millions slaughtered by Hitler or Stalin, in Rwanda, Yugoslavia, or Darfur. Comparatively, the death tolls of Herod and Pharaoh combined hardly add up to the number of children killed by abortion in any major city each week. By some estimates and entire third of the generation that was to be born over the last thirty years never drew their first breath. Maybe that third contained medical doctors who could have cured some form of cancer. Maybe that third contained a lawyer who could have put Caylee Anthony’s murderer in jail. Maybe that third contained politicians and judges who would have undone the horror of Roe v. Wade. Pharaoh, Herod, Hitler and Stalin were tyrannical dictators who tolerated no opposition. Standing up against them meant that your life was practically forfeit. We do not live under such regimes. It is we the people who make the laws by which our leaders govern and it is we the people who elect our leaders. We know what history says of Pharaoh, Herod, Hitler and Stalin. What will it say of us if we do not bring to an end the American Holocaust that is abortion in America? What mighty move of God is right at our very threshold as the enemy massacres countless thousands every day?
We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.