Feast of the Day – 12/28 – The Holy Innocents
December 28 is the Feast of the Holy Innocents. This feast dates from the 6th century and commemorates the the slaughter of the boys under two years of age in Bethlehem as recounted in the Gospel of Matthew (2:16). The murders were occasioned by the visit of the Thee Wise Men to Herod, the Roman client king. When the Wise Men did not return to tell Herod of the boy shown to them by the Star, Herod estimated that the New King foretold by the Star would be two years old or less. As a result he ordered their wholesale murder.
Some scholars say that this event never really happened. The story in Matthew and the infancy narrative itself were attempts to show the importance of Jesus and the prophecies and wondrous events that happened at his birth. However, since Herod’s cruelty was legendary, scholars have not been able to rule it out.
The Coventry Carol brings to life the pathos of this remembrance. The first time I heard the Coventry Carol it was sung on a Christmas recording by Joan Baez as the Vietnam War was escalating. The commemoration and the carol are a timeless recollection of the victims of war, famine, and plague. People in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Fr. Raymond Brown, the scripture scholar, suggested that the narrative was written to recall the exile and return of Israel and Christ. Rachel mourning for her children recalls Jeremiah’s assurance that they would return from their capitivity in Babylon. The flight of Joseph, Mary and Jesus into Egypt to escape Herod parallels Israel’s own sojourn on the Nile. The slaughter of the children recalls the 10th plague which killed all of the first born human and animal males in Egypt and which resulted in the release of the Israelites, God’s people.
The message of hope in this time of darkness is echoed in the Prologue of St. John’s Gospel.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John1:5)