Fourth day in the Octave of Christmas – Feast of the Holy Innocents – Gospel

Commentary on Matt 2:13-18

They are called ‘martyrs’ but they were really victims of circumstances. After they had gone to visit Jesus, the wise men had been instructed not to go back to Herod and tell him where the child could be found but to return to their home country by another way.

At the same time, Joseph was also warned to take the child and find refuge in Egypt until the threat from Herod had passed. On that very night they set off for Egypt and did not return until after the death of Herod. Egypt was a traditional place for people fleeing danger in Palestine. But Matthew has a reason of his own in this symbolical account, which does not have to be taken as literally happening. By going to Egypt, Jesus will be able to fulfil a prophecy of Hosea, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” The “son” in Hosea’s text is really Israel but Matthew applies it to the “son of God” – son of David, of Abraham, of Mary and Joseph but, above all, of God.

Realising that he had been let down by the Magi, Herod is angry – and also frightened. He cannot afford to have a potential rival continuing to exist so near. He gives orders for the killing of every male child of two years and under. By this he hopes to make sure he has wiped out the “King of the Jews” the Magi spoke to him about.

Wwe cannot say for certain that Matthew is speaking of something that actually happened although the massacre was totally in keeping with Herod’s known character. But it gives the evangelist the opportunity to quote from the Hebrew Testament, this time from the prophet Jeremiah. It shows Rachel, the wife of the patriarch Joseph weeping for the abduction of her children (that is, her descendants at a much later time) taken into exile during the Assyrian invasion of the northern kingdom in 722-21 BC. They are seen has her ‘children’ because Bethlehem is identified with Ephrath, the place near where Rachel was buried. Ramah, on the other hand, was about 10 km north of Jerusalem but the wailing was so loud it could be heard at a great distance.

The story is telling us that Jesus escaped this horror but only for a while. He would, in Matthew’s framework, be called back by his Father to Israel and, in the course of time, would fall foul of the leaders of his people and their Roman overlords and give his life for us.

Perhaps today we could remember all those who, as infants or young children, become the victims of war and famine and disease and the results of sexual irresponsibility. The numbers are so great in all parts of the world, both rich and poor, that it amounts to a massacre.

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