Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, one of the ancient feasts of the Church. It appears in Rome probably sometime between 455 and 480, but may have been celebrated elsewhere earlier. It commemorates the events recorded in Matthew 2:13-18 after the Magi had visited Herod and then Jesus:
Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.”
When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.”
Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children,
Refusing to be comforted,
Because they are no more.”
This feast of those who may have a better claim than Stephen to being the first martyrs of the Church reminds us that when the Prince of Darkness wars against the King of Kings, he is perfectly happy for the weakest of the weak to suffer. The Church has often used this feast in recent times to highlight to mass destruction of the unborn due to the proliferation of abortion on demand. Certainly this is apropos.
We can also view it in more graphic ways in the destruction of Christian villages and the slaughter of their inhabitants in Syria this year, principally by Islamist rebels armed by the government of the United States. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise us that if the government is going to arm its own doctors with authority kill its own unborn citizens, it would send weapons overseas to those who would also indiscriminately kill children. Syria is just the most obvious recent example.
Others have viewed or participated in the massacre of the Innocents in the explosion of child pornography and its close ally, child prostitution. It has also happened through the availability of innocence-destroying material to children, not just through the Internet, but through every media outlet, especially movies, television, and music.
Herod the Great died a few years after the birth of Jesus, but the same evil that motivated Herod lives on. It will do anything it can to stop Christ and His kingly rule. It will always promote the opposite of peace on earth and goodwill toward men. Herod killed so few children in the precincts of Bethlehem that Josephus does not even mention this massacre in his account of Herod’s atrocities. In comparison, the destruction of innocents wrought in our day almost defies comprehension or description.
Jesus escaped Herod’s wrath the same way so many today flee persecution and intimidation, or even the threats of poverty and hunger: he immigrated to another country. Jesus became a stranger and alien in a foreign land. We, too, are to live as foreigners and exiles (1 Peter 2:11) for our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20).
If we ourselves are not of this world, who are we to deny the temporal comforts and safety of it to those who are from another part of it? And how is it that some of the worst offenders are those who would proclaim the loudest that America is a Christian nation, founded upon Christian principles which must be restored? Often the principles propounded have nothing to do with Christianity, while at the same time explicitly Christian principles (supported by Testaments Old and New) are ignored or even eschewed.
When we turn away the stranger and the alien, do we turn away Jesus? When we tell the stranger and alien, “You are not welcome here,” are we saying that to Jesus? Even if we live under the illusion that we are full to capacity, should we not be like the innkeeper, who, two years before, still found a place for the Savior?
Yes, those are a lot of questions in rapid succession, but they are some of the questions the commemoration of these events should cause us to ask.
The whole story of the flight to Egypt and the slaughter of the Innocents has so much to tell us about how we – both personally and officially – treat others. It tells us about the things we tolerate and shouldn’t. It tells us about the people we don’t tolerate and should.