There is neither speech nor language; but their voices are heard among them.
Their sound is gone out into all lands; and their words into the ends of the world.
(Ps. xix. 3,4)
Today’s Feast of the Holy Innocents recalls to our spiritual memory King Herod’s infanticide or slaughter of all young boys, two years and younger, in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus Christ’s birth. St. Matthew is the only Gospel writer to record the event, and he says that the action fulfilled a prophesy written in the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah: In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not. (Jer. xxxi. 15) St. Matthew believes that prior to the coming of salvation that the adult Jesus Christ would bring to all people, Jeremiah had prophesied the slaughter of innocent Jewish children, this time not by foreign invaders of ancient Israel, but by the half-Jewish King Herod the Great, the Roman client-king of Judaea. (Wiki…) Rachel was the daughter of Laban and the wife of Jacob or Israel, and like her mother-in-law Rebekah and grandmother-in-law Sarah had trouble conceiving, probably having lost many of her babies in the womb or as still-births, even though she bore two sons who lived – Joseph and Benjamin. Thus, here she symbolizes every mother who weeps for her own lost child in particular and for the lost spiritual children of Israel in general. In both cases, her weeping without comfort is a sign of one who does not yet know of the deliverance and salvation that Jesus Christ will bring both to all people and the Holy Innocents whom Herod slaughters.
But let us look a bit at the details of the massacre. St. Matthew tells us that three Wise men from the East had arrived at the court of Herod asking, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.(St. Matthew ii. 2) The Wise Men were thought to be astrologers whose scientific calculations had moved them out and away from their native lands by a star which pointed to the birth of the King of the Jews. In them both knowledge of Jewish history and science combined to draw them by a natural sign to a supernatural wonder. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. (Ibid, 3) So Herod consulted his theologians, askimg where the King of the Jews or Messiah was prophesied to be born, and they told him in Bethlehem of Judaea. And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: For out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. (Ibid, 5,6) So Herod then sent the Wise Men to Bethlehem saying, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. (Ibid, 8)And though we do not read that Herod sent a military escort to Bethlehem with the Wise Men’s caravans, he probably had the equivalent of FBI or CIA agents make the journey in disguise. It is clear that he feels threatened, probably superstitiously so.
So we read that the Wise Men departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way. (Ibid, 9-12) If Herod’s agents had seen this, they would have reported back to Herod an event that seemed wholly absurd. They would have seen these Wise Men and their companies of retainers bowing down before a poor child, born in a cave, surrounded by his ordinary parents, simple shepherds, and farm animals. The picture would have struck them as ridiculous and bizarre.
What we do know is that because the Wise Men chose to ignore Herod’s request and travelled back to their homes by another way, the Judean King’s pride and egotistical self-importance was wounded. He would have thought that they not only disregarded his royal status but dishonored his curiosity and wonder. And so his response was violent. Herod was a violent man by habit and custom. He has been described as a madman who murdered his own family and a great many rabbis and [was] prepared to commit any crime to gratify his own unbounded ambition. (Wiki…) Of course, even violent and paranoid narcissists are not without their successes. He had renovated the Second Temple at Jerusalem, had constructed the great sea port and city of Caesarea Maritima in honor of the divine Emperor Octavian Augustus, and had built the great defensive fortresses of Herodium and Massada. But at the same time he was a paranoid and fearful megalomaniac. The Romans gave him the honorary title of King of the Jews in 40 B.C., though he was clearly a puppet ruler. Perhaps for this reason he lived always in fear of any threats to his rule. He didn’t even trust the members of his own family. He executed his wife Mariamne, and three of his sons – Antipater, Alexander, and Aristobolus. He had a personal bodyguard of 2000 soldiers, and his secret police monitored the lives of the Jewish people. Some historians say that he was afflicted with manic depression and constant anxiety attacks. He feared the Jews as much as his Roman overlords.
And so we should not be surprised with what we read next in St. Matthew’s Gospel. Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the young boys that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men. (Ibid, 16) Scripture tells us that Joseph was warned of this immanent slaughter in a dream and took the Blessed Virgin and the Christ Child into Egyptian exile.
St. Matthew tells us that the reaction of the mothers of the murdered babies was akin to Jeremiah’s prophesy. In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not. (Idem) The mothers did not yet know that their babies were the first Christian martyrs. In all likelihood they did not even know that the Christ Child had been born in their immediate surroundings. They would not know that their children died because the world rejected Jesus Christ, sent Him into exile with His parents, and was so fearful of His coming. Jerusalem and its earthly king, the world and her earthly kings and rulers, never condoner any kind of competition to their power, rule, and governance. In order to ensure the perpetuation of their earthly power and its maintenance, men are constantly killing off that innocence and purity that reveal the true nature of their inner motivation and spiritual disposition.
St. Quodvultdeus, whose name means what God wants, Bishop of Carthage in North Africa in the 5th century, and finally exiled to Naples, says this about Herod: When they tell of one who is born a king, Herod is disturbed. To save his kingdom he resolves to kill him, though if he would have faith in the child, he himself would reign in peace in this life and forever in the life to come. (Sermon: Holy Innocents) Herod is afraid of what he might lose and not intrigued by what he might gain with Jesus Christ’s birth. The Saint continues: Why are you afraid, Herod, when you hear of the birth of a king? He does not come to drive you out, but to conquer the devil. But because you do not understand this, you are disturbed and in a rage, and to destroy one child whom you seek, you show your cruelty in the death of so many children. (Idem)
But is Herod so unlike the rest of us? Don’t we really fear what it might cost us for the Savior of the world to be born into our lives? Christ doesn’t necessarily want to dethrone us externally and visibly, but He does want to be born to reign from the throne of our hearts. He wants to get at us where we are most vulnerable, most weak, most powerless, most fearful, and most full of anxiety. He wants to get at the Herod in all of us, and He wants to dethrone that Herodian, demonic possession that resists His innocence, which alone can rid us of our sin. Of course, we do find this most disturbing and unsettling. We want God at a safe distance, the Hallmark Jesus, whose presence comes no closer than an image on a greeting card. We are afraid and fearful of what the birth of Jesus Christ in our lives might actually mean. We clutch desperately to all rights to rule and govern ourselves. And yet the sad thing is that we are not in control of ourselves. We are ruled and governed by fear, anxiety, worry, and depression. And so in order to sustain the charade of self-control, we manipulate others. And all this because we are so pathetically afraid of what God wants to do in and through us with the birth of His Son!
St. Quodvultdeus’ tells us, The Holy Innocent children die for Christ, though they do not know it. That is why we remember them as Christian martyrs, even though they did not know Christ. Unselfconsciously and unwittingly, they were drawn into Christ’s army long before He assumed His earthly, adult mission of salvation to us all. See how the deliverer is already working deliverance, the saviour already working salvation. (Idem) The Holy Innocents were part of God’s plan for our salvation that swept over the world as His Grace drew others into the wake of His Incarnation. Long before they could even choose to follow Christ, they were cut down and killed precisely because Herod wagered that one of them was bound to have been the Christ. So the Holy Innocents were killed for being the first Christians, long before the Christian religion had even found definition in the adult life of Jesus Christ! Because of Christ, for Christ, and as Christ, they were all martyred innocently as He would be some time later. Yet we need not mourn their loss. Rather, we should laud and celebrate Heaven’s gain. They pray for us. Thus, as they died for Him, we too can die, that He may reign as King supreme not only from their hearts but from ours also. Amen.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: