The Innocents

Shadows lurked beneath the light of the star of Bethlehem. There is murder in the air as Herod attempts to eliminate any possible threat to his throne by ordering the death of any male child 2 years and younger found in the town of Bethlehem. Today, amidst the warmth of Christmas the Church bids us celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents.

Historically, Herod was well known for his cruelty. He was believed to have engineered the death of a Hasmonean prince who threatened his hold on power and had at least one of his wives and her mother executed. Fearing the schemes of his own sons who were conniving to usurp his claim on the throne, he had them executed as well. Caesar Augustus, who was no stranger himself to murder and intrigue, was said to have commented that, “I would rather be Herod’s dog than his son.”  This was the world into which Christ was born. A world controlled by people like Herod. While shepherds and magi come and go, the light of the Star shines on the good and evil alike.

Some dismiss the account of the Holy Innocents as myth given that the Gospel of Matthew is the only reference that mentions the massacre of the children of Bethlehem. We should not be surprised that this is the only reference.  The common people of Bethlehem did not merit much attention at all in a world controlled by the likes of Herod or Caesar. As such, their indignities and sufferings would not matter all that much to the historians of the time. We would probably rather not have the memory of such a terrible event interrupt our feelings of Christmas season, but the Church insists that we look at the total event of Christ’s coming into the world, and the death of these innocent children is not an incidental part of the story of the Incarnation.

Beneath the light of the star of Bethlehem there is a disturbing irony. The Lord Jesus, who is to end his life by dying for others, begins his life with others dying because of him. His safety is assured, His own Mother’s happiness is preserved amidst the misery of others. Jesus became one of us and thus vulnerable to all the trials and tribulations of life. He would have to accept not only the joy and glory of being human, but our sorrow and sufferings as well.

I think that the church asks something of us. In this story, Herod represents all the powers that stand against Christ. These powers are the same temptations that lurk within us all. Temptations that want nothing to do with Christ and seek to lure us from accepting Christ as King and Lord of our lives. Temptations to declare ourselves innocent. Yet as the first reading warns us: “If we say, ‘We are without sin,’ we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us…If we say, ‘We have not sinned,’ we make him a liar and his word is not in us.” (1 John 1:8,10)

Herod is the villain of that story. Will we be the villains in our own story?

Image credit: Léon Cogniet (1794-1880), “The Massacre of the Innocents” (photo: Public Domain)

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