The Holy Innocents, martyrs
According to Matthew’s gospel, the Holy Innocents, children of Bethlehem, two years old and under, were massacred by the Idumean, King Herod the Great. The story really begins with the visit of the Magi or astrologers, “Wise Men”, arriving in Jerusalem and enquiring for a newborn child who is “King of the Jews”. They said that they had seen his star in the eastern sky and had come to pay him homage. On hearing the news, Herod, the Romans’ client king in Judaea, immediately became anxious and the whole of Jerusalem with him. He felt his throne was in danger and that could mean a future attack on the city.
Herod then called together the chief priests and scribes, experts in Jewish law, and asked where the Messiah was to be born. They said it would be in Bethlehem of Judaea, a small town not far from Jerusalem. They based their answer on a combination of texts taken from the prophet Micah (5:1) and the Second Book of Samuel (5:2) which read: “You, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the princes of Judah, since from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”
Micah is writing during a period when the king in Jerusalem is under great threat from the Assyrians. But the tiny and insignificant town and clan of Bethlehem-Ephrathah is the seat of the Davidic dynasty from which will come the Messianic king to rule over Israel. The second part of the prophecy echoes a passage in the Second Book of Samuel where the tribes of Israel come to David in Hebron asking him to be their king. They say to him, “And the Lord said to you, ‘You shall shepherd my people Israel and shall be commander of Israel’.” It was a powerful prophecy which clearly made Herod nervous.
Herod summoned the Magi and asked them the exact time of the star’s appearance. He then sent them off to Bethlehem with the instructions: “Find out all you can about the child. When you have found him, let me know so that I, too, can go and pay him homage.” Herod, of course, had a very different kind of homage in mind.
The Magi then set off and the star, which they had seen, now appeared again and stopped over the place where the Child was. Overcome with joy, they went into the house and found the Baby with Mary its Mother. They fell prostrate on the ground in homage. Then they brought out the gifts they had brought – gold, frankincense and myrrh, customary gifts in the Orient as signs of homage. On completion of their visit, they were told in a dream not to return to Herod but to return home by another route.
Then, in another dream, an angel appeared to Joseph and told him to take the child and his mother and find refuge in Egypt until told otherwise. That very night they left for Egypt and did not return until after the death of Herod. Matthew sees this as the fulfilment of a prophecy in Hosea (11:1): “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” In this way the prophet relates Jesus to the destiny of Israel. Just as God called Israel out of Egypt to create his own people, so now he will call Jesus out of Egypt into the land of Israel to accomplish his purpose of creating the new Israel or People of God. The story of the flight into Egypt thus enables this prophecy to be fulfilled in Jesus. Writing as he is for a Christian Jewish audience, Matthew likes to see events in the life of Jesus as the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies.
When Herod realised the astrologers had cheated him, he was furious. On the basis of the information the Magi had given him, he ordered that every boy of two years and under in Bethlehem and the surrounding area should be killed.
How many children actually lost their lives? One Eastern liturgy had 14,000 and another list said it was 64,000. A Catholic source in the early 20th century said that in a village of that size the figure could only be between 6 and 20 children. Still a tragic number.
According to Matthew, the massacre fulfilled a verse of Jeremiah (31:15), read as a prophecy of this event: “A cry was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loud lamentation: Rachel bewailing her children; no comfort for her, since they are no more.” The text originally was a description of the tragedy of the Babylonian exile, when large numbers of Jerusalem’s citizens were taken off as slaves to Babylon. In the following verse God asks “Rachel” to stop weeping because her children “shall come again from the land of the enemy”. And so some commentators believe the purpose of Matthew for including Jeremiah’s words is not to connect the reference to “weeping” with the slaughtered babies, but rather with the Child Jesus, who has gone to a foreign land like Israel had before him but will return.
The Scripture commentator, Raymond Brown, suggests the account in Matthew is based on an earlier story which was modelled on the killing of the Hebrew firstborn by Pharaoh and the birth of Moses. Such a connection would have been easily understood by Jewish readers.
The feast of Holy Innocents has been observed in the Western Church since the 4th century. They were regarded as martyrs because they not only died for Christ but in place of Christ.
In honouring the Innocents, the Church honours all who die in a state of innocence, especially very young children and babies, and consoles parents of dead children with the conviction that these also will share the glory of the infant companions of the Infant Jesus.
In England their feast was called Childermas. Some English and French churches claim to have their relics.