Today we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents, all those young boys in and around Bethlehem, two and under, whom Herod had massacred in order to kill Jesus Christ. We do not know their number or their names, but the church lists them as among her martyrs. Some have disputed that they should be called martyrs since they did not submit freely for the sake of Christ but were “merely victims” of Herod. Nevertheless, the church has long numbered them in her ranks of martyrs. Saint Augustine says of them:
And while Herod thus persecutes Christ, he furnished an army (or martyrs) clothed in white robes of the same age as the Lord. O blessed infants! He only will doubt of your crown in this your passion for Christ, who doubts that the baptism of Christ has a benefit for infants. He who at his birth had angels to proclaim him, the heavens to testify, and Magi to worship him, could surely have prevented that these should not have died for him, had he not known that they died not in that death, but rather lived in higher bliss. Far be the thought, that Christ who came to set men free, did nothing to reward those who died in his behalf, when hanging on the cross he prayed for those who put him to death.
Today we honor their sacrifice. And through our honoring of them, and worship of God, we seek to atone for the many sins against human life, beginning with abortion, and including other forms of murder, and euthanasia, disregard for the safety and dignity of others, mistreatment and indifference to the plight of others, and all other sins against life.
Where does human cruelty come from? Surely it grows in us by stages, for most of us are not born with murderous fear of others. It is “bequeathed” to us by others, and we grow it in our heart. Hatred, rooted in fear, is handed on down through the generations, and the murderous inherit a thinking that there are some who are not worthy of their respect and love. Perhaps they are a threat, perhaps their relatives did something in the past. Perhaps they may do something in the future. Herod was clearly a fearful man, so fearful that he was unmoved by the cries of wailing parents, or of suffering infants. His heart had grown cruel through repeated insensitivity inflicted on others, due to raging and irrational fear.
An old Latin hymn says, Crudelis Herodes, Deum Regem venire quid times? Non eripit mortalia, Qui regna dat caelestia (Cruel Herod what do you fear in the King and God to come? He seizes not Earthly things who gives Heavenly kingdoms). But in the end it IS his fear that drives him.
We know well that Holy Innocents continue to be killed in our world through abortion. And here too, it is most often fear that drives the killing. How will the baby be afforded?! What changes will this baby bring that I cannot take? Perhaps the prenatal tests show a possible defect. I cannot deal with this! What if my parents know that I am pregnant? How will this pregnancy affect my career?! What if my father finds out I got my girl-friend pregnant!? And society says, What of poverty? What of overpopulation? What of deformity? How can we collectively handle all this?
And thus fear drives the current bloodshed. Fear makes us focus on our self, such that we think too little of what we do to others. Abortion thus becomes an “abstraction,” an “issue” that is debated, a “choice.” Abortion, to many, is anything but real. The reality of fetal pain is out of sight and thus less real than the fear. What abortion is doing to our world, that too is less real than the fear. It is the fear that is real, and the fear eclipses everything else. And fear desensitizes, and thus the killing of the innocent becomes plausible, a woman’s “choice,” reproductive “freedom.”
The only solution to fear is trust, faith in God. God alone can set us free from the awful fears that currently drive abortion. We in the church must be realistic about the fears that many face before the mystery of new life and we must provide reasons for hope and trust. Fear is a cruel task-master and it drives us to do some pretty awful things.
One of the most common lines in the New Testament is “Do not be afraid.” Hope, trust, and faith are important to us on this feast of the Holy Innocents.
There is also this dangerous thought on this Holy Feast.
I’ll explain what I mean by “dangerous” in a moment. But for now consider some biblical facts with me.
- When God was drawing close to liberating his chosen people from slavery in Egypt there occurred the order to murder of the all the baby boys among the Hebrews. It is almost as though Satan sensed that God was up to something good, and Satan raged, through Pharaoh, in murderous anger driven by fear. Thankfully the actual numbers were reduced since the Egyptian midwives engaged in civil disobedience, refusing to allow the practice to continue.
- At the time of Jesus, when God was preparing to liberate his people from sin, there also occurred the murder of innocent baby boys. Here too, it is almost as though the Devil sensed that God was up to something good and, he once again raged, this time through Herod, in murderous anger driven by fear. Thankfully, too, this infanticide also ended at some point.
- Notice the pattern.When God prepared a great liberation, the Devil, raging in fear, went after the babies. In our time, on a scale as never before, the Devil is going after our babies in murderous anger driven by fear. What is he afraid of? Is God planning something big in the near future? Is there a great liberation at hand? Is there a great advancement of evangelization and conversion in the offing? We can only speculate. But patterns are patterns and scripture has a way of repeating its patterns and echoing down through the centuries.
Why is this a dangerous reflection? Because I want to make it clear that abortion, the killing of the innocents in our age, is NOT, and never can be, considered something good, or a “positive sign.” Such a speculation might cause some to wrongly conclude that abortion is part of God’s plan or something we should see “positively.” We should not. It must be fought. It is of Satan, it is rooted in fear.
End the Massacre And the Glory follows. I want to conclude by reminding you that the great liberation that followed the past infanticides did not occur until AFTER those murderous rages were stopped. Hence, to follow the pattern established in scripture, and to see a potentially great and liberating act of God, we must first see an end to the slaughter. Work and pray to end abortion. May the Holy Innocents pray for us!
I put the following video together to honor these young martyrs. The musical setting is by Michael Haydn of the hymn for the Feast of the Holy Innocents: Salvete Flores Martyrum – It is from his Vesperae In F for Equal Voices, Soli and Orchestra. The singers are the Collegium Instrumentale Brugense. This music is available at iTunes. The Latin text of this ancient hymn is quite beautiful. I produce here the Latin text followed by a fairly literal translation.
I would like to call your attention to the second verse and a very charming detail. That verse described these young, two year old martyrs as holding palm branches (the symbol of martyrdom) but as they hold them they play with them, in the way a young child will often fiddle with palm branches in church. Beautiful and so very human!
Salvete flores martyrum, – Hail Martyr Flowers
quos lucis ipso in limine – On the very threshold of the dawn (of life)
Christi insecutor sustulit – Christ’s persecutor destroyed (you)
ceu turbo nascentes rosas. – like the whirlwind does the budding roses.
Vos prima Christi victima, – You Christ’s first fruits
grex immolatorum tener, – A flock of tender sacrificial victims
aram sub ipsam simplices – right up by the very altar
palma et coronis luditis. – now play with your palms and crowns
Iesu, tibi sit gloria, – Jesus to you be glory
qui natus es de Virgine, – who were born of the Virgin
cum Patre et almo Spiritu, – with the Father and loving Spirit
in sempiterna saecula. Amen. – unto to eternal ages. Amen.