The Feast of the Holy Innocents
The ancient calendar followed by most of the Christian Church for almost two millennia intersperses beauty and awe with violence and death. Aside from Holy Week and Easter, this is nowhere more apparent than during the days of Christmastide.
Following the joyful celebration of our Savior’s nativity, the Second Day of Christmas commemorates Stephen, the Church’s first martyr, on the 26th. Saint John, the only apostle believed to have avoided a violent death, is remembered the next day. Through him, the Holy Spirit provides theological depth to the Gospels. John’s writings offer a treasury of understanding and living our lives as forgiven sinners, the promise of divine protection even in times of persecution, and the unshakeable, certain hope of our resurrection to eternal life.
The uplift of the Feast of Saint John dissolves into bloodshed on 28 December, the Fourth Day of Christmas. Holy Innocents Day marks the massacre of Bethlehem’s children by Herod the Great.
The account of the Wise Men who traveled to find the King of the Jews (see Matthew 2:1-12) inflamed Herod’s jealousy. In response, he sent his soldiers to kill all of Bethlehem’s boys two years old and younger in order to protect his throne and lineage. This was one of the last major decisions Herod made in a life filled with vainglory and descending into bodily sickness and increasing madness.
Matthew 18:13-18 records what happened following the Wise Men’s visit. The evangelist concludes his account with a heartbreaking quote from the Old Testament: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more. (v. 18; from Jeremiah 31:15)”
The slaughter of Bethlehem’s boys testifies to the world’s denial of God’s rule and its rejection of Christ’s Gospel of forgiveness. Fear drove Herod to do what he could to destroy Jesus. God rescued His Son but allowed the other young sons to be killed.
Some try to use this massacre to accuse God of lovelessness. However, He intends it to strengthen our faith. The story of Christ’s Nativity may belong to the “milk” of Christian doctrine (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:2); the slaughter of the Innocents is certainly tough meat, a food for which we often still find ourselves “not yet ready.” Dining on the Word’s difficult passages fortifies us to face similar trials to those of Scripture’s saints. We learn that there is no “pain-free” Christianity anymore than there was a pain-free Christ. Though we are healed by Jesus’ wounds, devil and world remain eager to wound us anew.
Even though God allowed it to happen, He certainly took no pleasure in infanticide and bereavement, nor did He ignore the pain of the victims and their survivors. Callous disregard was Herod’s way, not God’s. We know how the Father’s heart was stricken because we see the depth of His Son’s woe at other times of spiritual or physical loss: Jesus cried over Mary and Martha’s loss of Lazarus (John 11:32-36) and wept for sinful Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44).
Bethlehem lost her children because of God’s sympathy for our plight. They were part of the painful cost Christ accepted when He came to save us. He died not to keep these children from Herod but from Hell. He knew personally and intimately the pain felt by sword-pierced babies and grief-stricken parents. He carried it in His flesh and felt it fully as He hung from the cross.
Until this world ends, God will continue to use death, often savage and sometimes seemingly senseless, to open the gates of eternal life. Baptism is our participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Each saint’s death reminds us of the Savior’s death. Funereal sorrow gives way to supernal joy as we remember the One who died for us, since “to live is Christ, and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:21)”
May the Lord use the account of the Holy Innocents to lead us to sorrow over our sins and joy in His redemption. So we ask in the traditional prayer for this day: “Almighty God, the martyred innocents of Bethlehem showed forth Your praise not by speaking but by dying. Put to death in us all that is in conflict with Your will that our lives may bear witness to the faith we profess with our lips; through Lord Jesus, our Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.”
See related material at Cyberbrethren, Father Watson, and Aardvark Alley as well the archived posts on The Witness Days and The Days After Christmas here on Ask the Pastor.
Images of the paintings and the stained glass are in the public domain. The line drawing is © 2004 by Ed Riojas and part of a collection available for purchase through the Higher Things Store.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author of the book What Do Lutherans Believe, and writer of numerous published devotions, prayers, and sermons.
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Based on my article from The Concordian of 28 December AD 2011