The Holy Innocents, Martyrs – Readings

Commentary on 1 John 1:5 – 2:2; Psalm 123; Matthew 2:13-18

The Gospel reading begins with Joseph taking Mary and the Child into Egypt after a warning from an angel. They are told to stay there until they get further instructions. In fact, they stayed there until the death of Herod, after which they felt it was safe for them to return to their home in Nazareth.

In the meantime, Herod realised that the Magi were not going to come back to him, as he had requested. He now felt the threat to his throne more than ever before. So he ordered the wholesale killing of every male child of two years or under in the village of Bethlehem and in the surrounding area. He was taking no chances.

Sadly, as we know from history, his behaviour was completely in character. He executed his wife Mariamne and two of his sons because he believed they were a threat to his throne. The historian Josephus records a number of examples of Herod’s readiness to protect his power against threats, real or imagined. Herod, says Josephus, “never stopped avenging and punishing those who had chosen to be of the party of his enemies”. Another writer, speaking of the massacre of the infants said it was “quite in keeping with the character of Herod, who did not hesitate to put to death any who might be a threat to his power”. For such a man, the elimination of a handful of villagers’ children would mean nothing.

For us, of course, the event has significance. Because these children died in the place of Jesus, they are regarded as martyrs. Of course, Jesus himself would one day die for them, and for all of us.

The First Reading from the First Letter of John seems less directed at the innocent children whom we are remembering today, than at ourselves, who are far from innocent.

It begins with the statement:

…God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.

Would that we could say the same of ourselves! Perhaps we can identify more with the words which follow:

…we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true…

If asked, I will acknowledge that I am a Christian – but what kind of Christian?

The writer goes on to make an interesting observation:

…but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

One might expect him to say that, if we walk in the light, we will have fellowship with Jesus – but no, we have fellowship with one another.

And that, of course, is a central theme of this Letter. There can be no union with Christ, if we do not have union with each other. In fact, it is through union with brothers and sisters that we form our union with Christ. There is no other way.

He goes on to urge us to be honest about our failings. To claim we are totally free from sin is to deceive ourselves, and truth is not in us. Acknowledgement of our shortcomings is part of the truth:

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

Not to worry, though:

But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

All we need to do is to surrender ourselves completely to his compassionate mercy, and with his help, live in fellowship with all our brothers and sisters.

The children we remember today did not have to be concerned about these problems. But we might also remember that neither did they have the opportunity to live lives rich in love and fellowship. Let us use this precious opportunity for every day of life that is given to us.

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