During this fourth day of the Octave of Christmas, the Church commemorates the little children who were put to death on Herod’s instructions after the birth of Jesus – all the baby boys under the age of two. Herod hoped that in adopting this scattergun approach he would do away with this threatening child that the Magi had come to adore, and honour as a king. The term ‘collateral damage’ could have been invented for what Herod did.
The Holy Innocents are rightly honoured as martyrs. Martyrs in deed, if not in will, because they undoubtedly died for Christ. But we sometimes tend towards sanitising or romanticising this episode. Even though it is right and just to honour them and to acclaim them among the white-robed army who worship the Lamb, we should be careful of overdoing it and missing the unspeakable awfulness of it. The hymn we sang at the Morning Office this morning contained an image of these simple innocents playing with the palm branches that are the symbol of martyrs. It is a beautiful image in its way, but it can obscure the grim reality of the horror of the exterminating slaughter perpetrated by the enraged, paranoid despotic Herod.
For this moment in the story of the Incarnation presents a stark reminder, in the midst of the tinsel and cake of these days, of the cosmic battle between good and evil. At the very moment when God stooped down and pitched his tent among us, Evil was unleashed on a massive scale.
The infant who was the target of this slaughter escaped of course. A victory for good, for sure. But also, a foretaste of the massive displacement of peoples caused to this very day by greed and aggression by leaders against their own people.
In the midst of our Christmas festivities, if our faith is to be honest, it is good to be reminded - however briefly and uncomfortably - of Rachel’s voice, heard in Rama and in many places since - wailing and lamenting inconsolably for her children. Not to take away from our Christmas joy. But to give it context and to understand more deeply the saving work of our Redemption – God’s victory over death and sin, brought about through the Incarnation of his Eternal Word.
"The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,
And death squads spread their curse across the world.
But every Herod dies, and comes alone
To stand before the Lamb upon the throne." (Malcolm Guite)