Image: Massacre of the Innocents, Peter Paul Rubens
Memento mori: remember death. The last vestiges of colorful wrapping paper have not yet been whisked away by the garbage men. There is still leftover rib roast in the fridge. We have only just begun the octave of celebration of the Incarnation, the birth of the Christ child, and already we are confronted with the somber commemoration of Herod’s brutal murder of the little ones of Bethlehem.
For a Christian, life and death, celebration and sorrow, are ever inextricably intertwined.
St. Matthew’s Gospel (2:16-18) recounts for us the gruesome deed:
Then Herod perceiving that he was deluded by the wise men, was exceeding angry; and sending killed all the men children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the borders thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.
Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremias the prophet, saying: A voice in Rama was heard, lamentation and great mourning; Rachel bewailing her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.
Rachel’s lamentation is a bracing reminder of the age-old enmity between the children of Eve and the minions of the Great Serpent. “She shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel” (Gen 3:15). In a sermon by the fifth-century saint and confessor, Saint Quodvultdeus rebukes the wicked king’s awful, self-serving fear:
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.
You are not restrained by the love of weeping mothers or fathers mourning the deaths of their sons, nor by the cries and sobs of the children. You destroy those who are tiny in body because fear is destroying your heart. You imagine that if you accomplish your desire you can prolong your own life, though you are seeking to kill Life himself.
Yet your throne is threatened by the source of grace – so small, yet so great – who is lying in the manger. He is using you, all unaware of it, to work out his own purposes freeing souls from captivity to the devil. He has taken up the sons of the enemy into the ranks of God’s adopted children.
The children die for Christ, though they do not know it. The parents mourn for the death of martyrs. The child makes of those as yet unable to speak fit witnesses to himself. See the kind of kingdom that is his, coming as he did in order to be this kind of king. See how the deliverer is already working deliverance, the savior already working salvation.
But you, Herod, do not know this and are disturbed and furious. While you vent your fury against the child, you are already paying him homage, and do not know it.
How great a gift of grace is here! To what merits of their own do the children owe this kind of victory? They cannot speak, yet they bear witness to Christ. They cannot use their limbs to engage in battle, yet already they bear off the palm of victory.
The Catholic Encyclopedia explains that we cannot know the exact number of little boys killed in the massacre. Historical sources made claims ranging from as many as 144,000 to as few as six. One imagines that the number was most likely somewhere in between, and certainly far higher than it ever should have been.
As the global massacre of the innocent continues in our present age, one imagines a world full of Herods. The rulers of this world have signed innumerable death sentences into law and do not even give the children who fall under the abortionists’ blades the dignity of martyrdom; at least The Holy Innocents died for Christ. Our modern massacre of these littlest is for no greater reason than selfishness. If Herod sought desperately to keep his power, even at the price of the blood of infants, so we, too, seek to keep our comfort and absolute autonomy at no less of a cost.
It would be well to pray for the intercession of these tiny martyrs, arrayed in splendor like an army among the heavenly host, to intercede and to fight for the children of our own generation. For if there is a world full of Herods, there is, too, a world full of Rachels, so many of whom look upon their own decision to spill the blood of their children and see it for the unspeakable crime that it surely is. And these too – in the quiet of their rooms or in the stillness of another sleepless night – lament and bewail their lost children.
And they cannot be comforted, because they are not.
Originally published on Dec. 28, 2015.