Today is the feast day of the Holy Innocents.
The Holy Innocents were the infants massacred by order of Herod after he learned that a rival king (Christ) was born. These children were martyred before even Christ began His public ministry.
A sermon ascribed to St. Augustine reads:
“Today, beloved brethren, we are celebrating the birthday of those children, who, as the Gospel tells us, were slain by the cruel king Herod. Let the world rejoice with great gladness, because she is the fecund parent of this great and powerful army of heavenly soldiers. The heathen foe could never have benefited these little ones by his goodwill as much as he did by his hatred.
This day’s holy festival shows that in proportion as his wickedness abounded towards these blessed little ones, so was the grace of blessedness poured forth upon them. Blessed art thou, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah; in thee was perpetuated the wicked crime of Herod the king; his massacre of these children: and therefore hast thou been found worthy to offer to God in one offering a white-robed multitude of innocent children.
Most fittingly do we keep the festival of their birthday, for their birth from this world into life eternal is more blessed than that from their mothers’ wombs. They attained unto life eternal and joined the ranks of the blessed before they had tasted life here on earth.
The precious death of other martyrs deserves praise for its testimony–those who have fought a good fight and finished their course; but death gave glory to these Innocents at the opening of their life, by closing it immediately. Herod in his wickedness snatched these sucklings from their mothers’ breasts; rightly are they called the flower of martyrdom, for they sprang up in the midst of the winter of unbelief, as the first opening buds of the Church, and were nipped by the frost of persecution.”
(Sermon 220; 1 on the Innocents)
The Gospel of Matthew is the only source we have of this account for now. Perhaps archaeologists may discover new sources in the future. The account is recorded in Matthew 2:16-18. Herod after being visited by the wise men learned of the Christ child. He pretended to be interested in giving adulation to the child, but instead had cruel intentions. He ordered that all male children ages two and younger be killed.
The number of children killed is up to speculation. Greek liturgies claim it was 14,000 boys while others claim it was 144,000 which is a reference to Revelation 14:3. However, modern biblical scholars believe it was in the dozens because Bethlehem is a small town and it would be logical that the amount would be less than 50.
Jewish historian Flavius Josephus does not mention this story in detail like the Gospel of Matthew does, but he does mention other atrocities committed by Herod. Since children did not enjoy the full legal stature of person-hood then, it is possible that any crimes against them were not mentioned in detail for this very reason. Josephus usually recorded events surrounding more renown figures.
In any event, Matthew wrote his Gospel in a way that speaks directly to those of the old covenant, or the Jews. He makes a great effort to link Jesus to the prophecies of the Old Testament so that Jews reading the text can see that Christ was indeed the promised Messiah. Matthew’s writing on the Holy Innocent shows the fulfillment of the prophecy found in Jeremiah 31:15.
Moreover, in Exodus 1:22 we read of a massacre of Hebrew babies which precedes the introduction of Moses in Exodus 2 where we are told that he is hidden in a basket from the massacre and rescued by the Pharaoh’s daughter. This is interesting because Moses was a liberator. He by the grace of God liberated the Hebrews from Egypt. Similarly, Christ the Son of God is a liberator; not from political figures or social injustices, but from sin. Christ, like Moses was spared of infanticide.
Ironically, in today’s modern world many ‘holy innocents’ are being killed via abortion. It makes me wonder if history will repeat itself. Is the liberator coming again after the slaughter of the innocents via abortion?