Today is the feast of the Holy Innocents. Sometimes referred to as “Childermas”, the feast celebrates what were believed to be the deaths of the first Christian martyrs. The actual number of these little martyrs is much debated. In the Syrian Christian litany of Saints, the number is as high as 64,000. In the byzantine liturgy the number is 14,000 Holy Innocents and those biblical scholars that accept the event as being historically accurate suggest that due to the size of Bethlehem and its surrounding region the number was probably somewhere between 20 and 30.
Those that suggest that Matthew refers to a historical event do so because they contend that it would be very much in keeping with the reign of terror that Herod was known for towards the end of his rule. As with almost anything there are also those that take the opposite position.
They suggest that an event of this significance would have had to have been chronicled by other Gospels, synoptic or apocryphal. And point to the similarities between this story and the account in exodus of Pharaoh trying to kill the first-born children of the Israelites after hearing of the birth of Moses.
While the story is heart wrenching and especially compelling at this time of year perhaps our time would be better served by looking at the underlying message rather than the numerical accuracy. At first blush we hear a story of one segment of society’s reaction to the birth of our Savior. Herod sees the news of the birth of Christ as a threat to his authority, or control, or legacy. And he has to put a stop to it in the most brutal way. This is a very different response from that of the King in the Christmas song “Do you hear what I hear”.
Remember that song? At one point the shepherd boy goes to tell the “mighty King”:
“Do you know what I know? In your palace warm, mighty king. A Child, a Child shivers in the cold
Let us bring him silver and gold,”
This King’s response was very different from Herod’s. He instead says; “Listen to what I say! Pray for peace, people, everywhere. The Child, the Child sleeping in the night. He will bring us goodness and light.” Unfortunately, Herod’s response seems a little more likely given all that we read about in history and in the current news.
The second take on the story revolves around the word “innocents”. By definition this word refers to purity, guilelessness or naivety. Here again our society does not seem to have much patience for innocents. The typical reaction is to “grow up”, “toughen up”, or to stop being “so soft”.
It seems as though, at this time of the year, there are any of a number of Hallmark Christmas movies that start with that wide eyed dreamer coming face to face with the reality of the season. Santa let them down, or a past love let them down, or that loose shoelace during the third-grade Christmas recital let them down and sent them flying into the second row of the audience (I have really got to cancel my subscription to the Hallmark Channel). The message usually seems to be that while the Christmas feeling is wonderful some day you will have to “grow up”.
It was interesting that the feast of Childermas was often celebrated as a feast of inversion, of role reversal between children and adults, with boy bishops presiding over some church events. Perhaps there was a realization that the loss of innocence was something to be regretted.
The final take, for me, is the focus on the aspects of “Holy Innocents”. If we take a personally reflective view of the feast perhaps there is a lesson of our reaction to this “spiritual innocents” inside of us. Afterall we are told in Matthew 18 to “become like little children”. And in Mark 10 warns us that if we do not “receive the Kingdom of God as a little child we will never enter it”.
Today we commemorate the deaths of these first littlest of martyrs. We reflect on the journey of the wise men from the east seeking our savior. And we try to understand the warped sense of purpose by Herod to hold on to something so temporal and secular. In the midst of all that, and after the whirlwind Holiday season, let us not forget the precious gift that we have been given in our own Holy Innocents. In our own purity, our own guilelessness, and our own naivety.
To paraphrase the words from St. Matthew; “let the [child inside you] alone, and do not hinder [it] from coming to me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to [ones] such as these.”
When the magi had departed, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said,
“Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt,
and stay there until I tell you.
Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.”
Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night
and departed for Egypt.
He stayed there until the death of Herod,
that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled,
Out of Egypt I called my son.
When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi,
he became furious.
He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity
two years old and under,
in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi.
Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet:
A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loud lamentation;
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she would not be consoled,
since they were no more.
December 28, 2021
December 28, 2021