I don’t know why this Feast Day began to stand out to me a few years ago. Perhaps it is the reminder of innocent lives lost, similar to lives lost in abortion. Or perhaps it is the fact they were slaughtered so callously by a man seeking power, reminiscent of cruel men such as Hitler. Or perhaps it’s just my increased awareness of the culture of death we live in and are constantly exposed to.
Celebrated on the 4th day of Christmas (December 28), on The Feast of the Holy Innocents, we recognize the young boys who were 2 years old or younger that were slaughtered as a result of King Herod’s anger at missing his opportunity to kill the king just born and whom he perceived as a threat to who he was as a man and as a king, Jesus Christ.
From Matthew 2:16-18: “Herod perceiving that he was deluded by the wise men, was exceeding angry; and sending killed all the men children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the borders thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: A voice in Rama was heard, lamentation and great mourning; Rachel bewailing her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.”
An exact date of when this massacre took place is unknown, though it is believed to have occurred within 2 years of Christ’s birth. And while an exact total of those killed is unknown, estimates range from 6 to 20. Regardless of the number however, we recognize that the loss of any human life, and especially that of a young child, is sad. And in this joyous Christmas season it is important to remember the loss of these young lives. Because as Catholics we look at the glory of these innocent victims who preceded Jesus Christ in death, the first martyrs of the Church.
This year the Feast Day of the Holy Innocents takes in a new meaning for us in the United States. We as a nation still carry in our heart and minds and prayers the death of many innocent young children and adults in Newtown, Connecticut. The loss of these innocent lives is even on the mind and in the prayers of Pope Benedict XVI, as he mentioned it during his December 17 Angelus appearance.
And so I offer as a reflection for the Feast of the Holy Innocents and keeping in mind those killed in Newtown, this sermon by one of our Early Church Fathers, Saint Quodvultdeus (Sermo 2 de Symbolo: PL 40, 655). This is found in the Office of Readings for the Feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28, the 4th of the 12 days of Christmas.
Even before they learn to speak, they proclaim Christ
A tiny child is born, who is a great king. Wise men are led to him from afar. They come to adore one who lies in a manger and yet reigns in heaven and on earth. When they tell of one who is born a king, Herod is disturbed. To save his kingdom he resolves to kill him, though if he would have faith in the child, he himself would reign in peace in this life and for ever in the life to come.
Why are you afraid, Herod, when you hear of the birth of a king? He does not come to drive you out, but to conquer the devil. But because you do not understand this you are disturbed and in a rage, and to destroy one child whom you seek, you show your cruelty in the death of so many children.
You are not restrained by the love of weeping mothers or fathers mourning the deaths of their sons, nor by the cries and sobs of the children. You destroy those who are tiny in body because fear is destroying your heart. You imagine that if you accomplish your desire you can prolong your own life, though you are seeking to kill Life himself.
Yet your throne is threatened by the source of grace, so small, yet so great, who is lying in the manger. He is using you, all unaware of it, to work out his own purposes freeing souls from captivity to the devil. He has taken up the sons of the enemy into the ranks of God’s adopted children.
The children die for Christ, though they do not know it. The parents mourn for the death of martyrs. The child makes of those as yet unable to speak fit witnesses to himself. See the kind of kingdom that is his, coming as he did in order to be this kind of king. See how the deliverer is already working deliverance, the saviour already working salvation.
But you, Herod, do not know this and are disturbed and furious. While you vent your fury against the child, you are already paying him homage, and do not know it.
How great a gift of grace is here! To what merits of their own do the children owe this kind of victory? They cannot speak, yet they bear witness to Christ. They cannot use their limbs to engage in battle, yet already they bear off the palm of victory.