The Holy Innocents - A Battle Between Good and Evil
“When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi, he became furious. He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi. Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet:
‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loud lamentation;
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she would not be consoled,
since they were no more.’” (Matthew 2:16-18)
In the Christmas story, I always think of the bravery of St. Joseph to pick up his family and flee to Egypt so Jesus would not be killed. However, I never think of the innocent children that were killed so Herod could remain in power. We do not know the exact number of boys killed in the massacre. Claims have been made from as few as 6 to as many as 144,000. The Church, in her wisdom, sets aside December 28 to remember these innocent children Herod ordered to be killed.
These little boys bear witness to Christ who was hated by some since the day of his birth. In reading these accounts, I can’t help but think of the nights standing watch over a sick child, praying for health. I cannot imagine those families’ horror.
Saint Quodvultdeus, who lived in the fifth century, speaks in a sermon of Herod’s fear and sacrifices of others so he can remain in power.
“A tiny child is born, who is a great king. Wise men are led to him from afar. They come to adore one who lies in a manger and yet reigns in heaven and on earth. When they tell of one who is born a king, Herod is disturbed. To save his kingdom he resolves to kill him, though if he would have faith in the child, he himself would reign in peace in this life and forever in the life to come.
Why are you afraid, Herod, when you hear of the birth of a king? He does not come to drive you out, but to conquer the devil. But because you do not understand this you are disturbed and in a rage, and to destroy one child whom you seek, you show your cruelty in the death of so many children.
You are not restrained by the love of weeping mothers or fathers mourning the deaths of their sons, nor by the cries and sobs of the children. You destroy those who are tiny in body because fear is destroying your heart. You imagine that if you accomplish your desire you can prolong your own life, though you are seeking to kill Life himself.
Yet your throne is threatened by the source of grace – so small, yet so great – who is lying in the manger. He is using you, all unaware of it, to work out his own purposes freeing souls from captivity to the devil. He has taken up the sons of the enemy into the ranks of God’s adopted children.
The children die for Christ, though they do not know it. The parents mourn for the death of martyrs. The child makes of those as yet unable to speak fit witnesses to himself. See the kind of kingdom that is his, coming as he did in order to be this kind of king. See how the deliverer is already working deliverance, the savior already working salvation.
But you, Herod, do not know this and are disturbed and furious. While you vent your fury against the child, you are already paying him homage, and do not know it.
How great a gift of grace is here! To what merits of their own do the children owe this kind of victory? They cannot speak, yet they bear witness to Christ. They cannot use their limbs to engage in battle, yet already they bear off the palm of victory.”
On this Feast of the Holy Innocents, we should pray for all those children (and their parents) who have had their lives senselessly taken by force.
The story also calls to mind the greater story of salvation as it also makes us harken back to the story of Moses—who just like Jesus came into the world to bring forth a kind of deliverance. “Then a new king, who knew nothing of Joseph, rose to power in Egypt. He said to his people, “See! The Israelite people have multiplied and become more numerous than we are! Come, let us deal shrewdly with them to stop their increase… Pharaoh then commanded all his people, “Throw into the Nile every boy that is born, but you may let all the girls live.” (Exodus 1: 8-10, and 22).
Just as Moses would deliver the people of God from bondage in Egypt, so Jesus has come to deliver us from bondage to sin. The connection is made perfectly clear on the mountain of Jesus’ transfiguration. “… he took Peter, John, and James and went up the mountain to pray. While he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:28-31) emphasis added.
Jesus then comes to make a personal work of both transfiguration and exodus in our lives such that turning away from sin, the beauty of God can shine through us. I am always reminded of this when I see pictures of St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Though aged in body, she always seems aglow.
The story also points to key aspects of the battle between good and evil in our world and in our own lives. These two events in Salvation History make clear that evil will always lash out violently toward the good, taking any means necessary to maintain its power. This means we should never be surprised when we receive resistance for doing good in the world. Nor, should we be surprised by temptations as we try to turn away from sin. In fact, the more committed we are to making change, the stronger the temptations will likely be.
Evil will also focus its attack on the weakest and most innocent. In the modern world, this means children within the family. As Christian parents, we must constantly strive to protect not only the physical lives of our children but also their spiritual lives. We must not let modern secularism, like Herod, snatch away their spiritual lives. Rather, we must identify active practices to foster spiritual development.
One way to do this, if you aren’t already doing so, is to begin a practice of blessing your children each and every day. Simply make the Sign of the Cross on the child’s forehead with your right thumb as you pray: “Bless you, my child, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
All Holy Innocents, Pray for us!