Collect for the Commemoration of Holy Innocents
HEAVENLY Father, whose children suffered at the hands of Herod, though they had done no wrong:
by the suffering of thy Son and by the innocence of our lives frustrate, we beseech thee,
all evil designs and establish thy reign of justice and peace; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord,
who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Old Testament lesson:
Jeremiah 31, Vv 15 - 17
1 Corinthians 1, Vv 26-29
St Matthew 2, Vv 13-18
Just three days ago, along with Christians across the whole world, we celebrated the Feast of the Nativity, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God. Like all the great festivals of the church, Christmass, as this feast is so commonly called, has an octave, a period of eight days in which we continue to remember and rejoice. These octaves are normally free from incursions and they allow us to continue our observance of the feast in question. However, the Christmass octave is treated differently by Mother Church. The days following the Nativity are packed full of other feasts and commemorations. The day after Christmass, known to most of us as Boxing Day, is the Feast of Saint Stephen. He was the proto-martyr, or first martyr, of the church and the details of his death, in which he saw, ‘the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ are told in the seventh chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. So, on the day after our wonderful celebrations of the Incarnation, a birth, and a most wondrous birth, we commemorate a death. On the following day the church keeps the Feast of Saint John the Evangelist. Saint John may, or may not, have been the Apostle John, brother of James and son of Zebedee. He may also, or may not, have been the Beloved Disciple, mentioned all through the Johannine Gospel. Saint John the Evangelist, who probably wrote the Gospel that bears his name, may also have written three Epistles and may also have been the author of the Apocalypse, the Revelation He died in imprisonment, at a great age, from natural causes, on the Greek island of Patmos. He was the only one of the original apostles, as far as is known, not to have been martyred for his faith.
We then move on to today, the 28th December, and what has been called the saddest and unluckiest day of the year, the day when we commemorate all those babies and young children who suffered at the hands of the henchmen of King Herod, an event sometimes called ‘the slaughter of the innocents’. We are given the details only by Saint Matthew, in chapter two of his gospel. You will remember that wise men, the Magi, those travelling Persian king-priests, visited the holy child and brought him symbolic gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. For reasons that are unclear from our scriptural sources, and despite the fact that the Magi seem to have been led ultimately by a star to the very house where Mary and Joseph were living with Jesus, they stopped off in Jerusalem to ask the way. It may have been simply a matter of political courtesy. However, they did pause on their journey and this action resulted in the ensuing bloodshed.
The main reason why we have this commemoration was the question put to King Herod by the Magi. The first thing they asked him was, ‘Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews?’ Herod was born in about 73 BC. Through much chicanery, double-dealing, underhandedness and plain, downright treachery he earned himself the title Tetrarch of Galilee; Tetrarch was a title that was commonly used for the leaders of parts of Rome’s vassal kingdoms. Herod’s appointment caused a lot of resentment among the Jews. After all, he was not a Jew. He was the son of a man from Idumea; and although his father Antipater had been a pious man, who had sincerely worshipped the Jewish God, the Jews had always looked down upon the Idumeans as racially impure. Worse still, Herod had an Arabian mother, and it was commonly held that one could only be a Jew if one was born of a Jewish mother. Herod most definitely saw himself as King of the Jews. Yet, here were a small band of wandering strangers, from a far away country in the east, asking, ‘where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?’
Two things have always surprised me about this story. First, Herod seems not to have had the foresight to send spies to follow the strangers on the remainder of their journey. He obviously thought that they would obey his instructions and visit him again on their return. His actions do not seem to tie in with his otherwise paranoid, obsessive and distrustful nature. History tells us that Herod murdered his own wife, his three sons, his mother-in-law, his brothers-in-law, his uncle and anyone else that he suspected might have had designs on his throne. He arranged for the murder of one of his sons while lying on his deathbed. In his will Herod left instructions that all the leading men of the Jewish nation should be rounded up and executed publicly at the time of his death, in order to ensure there would be proper mourning on the occasion of his funeral. The Emperor Cæsar Augustus once commented that it would be, ‘safer to be a pig in Herod’s pen than a son in Herod’s house’. But, let us get back to the Magi. They were warned in a dream not to return to Herod and later in Matthew’s account we read that Herod was infuriated when he realised that he had been tricked. ‘He sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under.’ Jesus, of course, was not affected by Herod’s murderous activities because Joseph had been told in a dream to take his family temporarily into exile in Egypt; they became, in effect, political refugees. It is interesting to observe that political refugee status is not the modern phenomenon that we may be led to believe that it is. Secondly, it is unclear why the church keeps the Commemoration of The Holy Innocents on the 28th of December, yet the visit by the Magi, which directly caused this calamity, is not celebrated until the Feast of the Epiphany on the 6th of January.
In his gospel Saint Matthew loves to point out how the Old Testament finds its fulfilment in Jesus Christ. Our text follows this pattern. After describing the horrible, gruesome order of Herod, Matthew writes, ‘Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more”’. This wasn’t the first time that the mothers of Israel were heard weeping and mourning for their children and it wouldn’t be the last. They wept in Jerusalem as their children were killed or carried off into exile at the time of the prophet Jeremiah. They wept at Calvary, as Jesus hung dying on a cross. They wept for their sons and daughters, for Stephen and James, for Peter and Paul, for their leaders who were martyred in the first centuries of the church, Ignatius, Polycarp, Origen, Simeon and many others, all of whom suffered because they confessed Jesus Christ as the Messiah and Saviour. Mothers weep today for the many modern martyrs throughout the world, whose names are known only to them and to God; in China, in the Middle East, in India, in Asia and in Africa. They suffer and die because of all the latter-day King Herods and their like who want Christ to die all over again and his church and its faithful adherents to die with him.
Rightly, we refer to those children who died as the Holy Innocents, but they were not holy because they carried no stain of mortal sin. Our Bible teaches us that all are born in a state of sin; we all carry the burden of what the church calls The Sin of Adam. Even the smallest, new-born baby is in need of God’s grace and forgiveness. No, they are called Holy because in their innocence they gave their lives for Christ. What did those little Baby boys in Bethlehem do to be killed? They did nothing, short of being born at the wrong time and in the wrong place. They were killed for no other reason than they resembled Jesus, they were boys and they were young, and one of them just might have been the one who was born King of the Jews, the King whom the Magi had come to honour and to worship. They died because of the paranoia of a ruthless, tyrannical ruler, who thought that he was the King of the Jews. For that they became martyrs, and it is a proper thing to call them that, because they were blood-witnesses of Jesus. That is what the word martyr means. The blood of these infants bore witness to the blood Jesus came to shed for our sins and they died under the grace and forgiveness of God.
There seems to be no corroborative, historical evidence of this infant massacre, so why does Saint Matthew give us the details in his gospel? First, the event may have happened, although it is unrecorded elsewhere. Secondly, he wants to set the birth of Jesus in the context of God’s relationship with his chosen people. You will remember in the Old Testament that Joseph took his brothers in to Egypt to save them from starvation and Moses, by being assumed into the family of Pharaoh’s daughter, escaped the wrath of Pharaoh, who was also determined to kill innocent children. Thirdly, Saint Matthew foreshadows the tale he will tell in the remainder of his gospel. The teachings and actions of Jesus will challenge the tyrants of the world and provoke active resistance and even violence. Thus the cradle cannot be separated from the cross. God’s redemptive love for his people, shown by the Incarnation of his Only Begotten Son, will incite aggression and hostility in all those who benefit and profit from injustice and inequality. History has shown the prophetic nature of Matthew’s words. Despite this, the end result is always good. Moses was successful in bringing the Jews to the Promised Land and by his mighty resurrection Jesus triumphed over the injustice and mockery of the cross.
Nothing in this world takes place by accident. God is in control and his hand is at work. Hidden behind what appears to be a tragedy on earth is the triumph of eternal victory. The victory of these young innocents who are now saints in glory, and the escape and final victory of the Saviour from the cross and the grave were all part of God’s plan; it’s not our job to question his ways for his people. At this Christmass tide may our love and affection be for a child who in due time would become a ‘man of sorrows’ and be ‘acquainted with grief’. He was truly the Son of God yet was born to die for us. May our faith in him remain steadfast so that in life or in death we may bear testimony to him and his cross and, at length, in God’s good time, join that faithful band of saints who stand forever before his throne of glory.
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