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 about 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 them 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. The first, taken from the prophet Micah reads:

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.
(Mic 5:2)

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:

The Lord said to you, ‘It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.’
(2 Sam 5:2)

These were powerful prophecies that 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:

Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage. (Matt 2:8)

Herod, of course, had a very different kind of homage in mind.

The Magi again set off, and the star they had seen now reappeared and stopped over the place where the Child was. Overcome with joy, they went into the house and found the baby Jesus with Mary his Mother. They fell prostrate on the ground in homage. Then they brought out the gifts they had carried all this way – gold, frankincense and myrrh, customary gifts in the Orient as signs of homage. On the completion of their visit, they were told in a dream not to return to Herod, but to return home by another route.

Also in a 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:

…out of Egypt I called my son. (Hos 11:1)

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, the 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 aged 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. No matter how many, it was still a tragic event.

According to Matthew, the massacre fulfilled a verse of Jeremiah, read as a prophecy of this event:

Thus says the Lord:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.
(Jer 31:15)

The text was originally 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 back from the land of the enemy. (Jer 31:16)

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 who will return.

The Scripture commentator, Fr 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 at 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 the parents of children who have died with the conviction that they also will share the glory of the infant companions of the Infant Jesus. In England their feast was called Childermas and some English and French churches claim to have their relics.

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