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  • Father Nicholas Lang

The Feast of The Holy Innocents

The Massacre of the Innocents is the biblical narrative of infanticide by Herod the Great, the Roman-appointed King of the Jews. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Herod ordered the execution of all young male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem, so as to avoid the loss of his throne to a newborn King of the Jews whose birth had been announced to him by the Magi. The readings for today give us a glimpse into the mystery of suffering. Rachel mourns her children; Christians are promised a new heaven and a new earth; innocent children are massacred.

Typical of Matthew, this event is framed as the fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy: "Then was fulfilled that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet, saying, 'A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more.'"

Since all the evidence that such an event occurred is found only in the Gospel of Matthew, New Testament scholars have said that the accuracy of such an event is an open question that probably can never be definitively decided. The number of infants killed is not stated; the Holy Innocents, although Jewish, have been claimed as martyrs for Christianity and their deaths observed on the 28th day of December.

Scholars argue that the story may have its origins in Herod's murder of his sons, an act which made a deep impression at the time and allow that the episode contains nothing that is historically impossible. Matthew's purpose here is to present Jesus as the Messiah, and the Massacre of the Innocents as the fulfillment of passages in the Hebrew Scriptures. The story may also be patterned on the Exodus account of the birth of Moses and the tenth plague, which involved the killing of all firstborns by Pharaoh.

How many innocents were slain that day in Bethlehem? The story assumed an important place in later Christian tradition; Byzantine liturgy estimated 14,000 Holy Innocents while an early Syrian list of saints stated the number at 64,000. Coptic, the Orthodox Church of Egypt, raise the number to 144,000. However, New Testament scholars argue that, based on Bethlehem's estimated population of 1,000 at the time, the largest number of infants that could have been killed would have been about twenty. One would have been too many for in God’s realm every child is absolutely precious.

Christmas celebrates, among other things, the vulnerability of God who took the full risk to be born as a fragile infant and to assume whatever else being a mortal implied. For God to take that risk rather than coming among us as a thundering avenger is the strange and wondrous paradox of Christmas. The lives of our children are also a paradox, for despite all the emphasis we as a culture put on family, one out of four children is born into poverty in the United States and the slow, grinding force of poverty takes a child's life every fifty-three minutes.

Every day we hear about children who are casualties of war, casualties of the preventable horrors of starvation and lack of clean water; children abused by pornographers and sold into slavery, victims of violence inflicted by those who should love and cherish them, targets of bullying, and mean-spirited behavior that has led to far too many self-inflicted deaths. During the week of Dec. 22-28, an average of 378 children 17 and under were admitted per day to hospitals with the coronavirus The innocents of our day still have plenty of Herods to fear.

Is this remembrance of slaughtered children perhaps also telling us that we possess a neglected educational system in the midst of an intelligent culture and an appalling rate of infant mortality in a land of unappalled economic and medical advantage? This is not a matter of political opinion but of radical conversion. It is not about ideological posture but recognition of the Christ who identified with the most vulnerable, marginal, disenfrancished ones especially of the poor and all children at risk everywhere.

In the midst of the festivities of our Christmas celebrations, we consider today our calling to protect and nurture children; a day to revisit the promises we all make at every baptism in this community; a day that shows us God as vulnerable, fragile, refugee, and hungry for justice. The Incarnation—God coming to us in the flesh— requires of us that we build structures and institutions that protect the child.

Of course, there is that child within us, that younger edition of our adult life that bears all the memories, good and bad, of our youth—often responsible for the pain we carry in our adult life and for so many unresolved issues. We may think of child emotional, physical and sexual abuse as a thing in an adult’s past but I will tell you that in my private practice the number of my clients dealing with the post traumatic stress of this early experience is astounding.

We pray for children today, that those who have been entrusted with their care will act lovingly and conscientiously on their behalf, realizing the precious gift they have been given. We pray for parents, families of any configuration, that God will give them wisdom, patience, and self-control, especially when children present a challenge.

We pray that children will understand the awesome responsibility their parents have undertaken and will not make this holy task more difficult by their thoughtlessness. And, most of all, pray for those innocents who are still “slaughtered” metaphorically by being denied their rightful place as beloved children of God. The Feast of the Holy Innocents reminds us of the indescribable preciousness of children, for at times our world does little to value or protect them.

We may look back at Herod and wonder how such a heartbreaking event could ever happen. The Feast of the Holy Innocents reminds us of the indescribable preciousness of children, for at times our world does little to value or protect them. Sadly, we don’t have to wonder to long. We know. We see it. We need, rather, to look into the eyes of the children of today—and love them.

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