This month’s rapid-fire series of major feast days wraps up today with the feast of the holy innocents, that is, the infants and toddlers of Bethlehem slaughtered at the command of King Herod. If St. John seemed odd to celebrate on the heels of Christmas Day, and St. Stephen almost “seasonally inappropriate”, the story of the Holy Innocents might be even more unpalatable to the sensitive reader. What could be a worse killjoy to the spirit of Christmas than talking about dead children?
And yet, even more than Saints Stephen and John, this story is very much connected to the Christmas story. We read in today’s Communion Gospel (Matthew 2:13-18) that these children died on account of Jesus: he was the target, they were the collateral damage. The Church, therefore, remembers them as the first martyrs for Christ. They were not martyrs in will – they were too young to make a stand for Christ. But they were martyrs in deed. This is in contrast to Stephen, who was a martyr both in will and deed, and to John, who was a martyr in will but not in deed.
The Gospel writer observes that this event is a fulfillment of a prophecy by Jeremiah, which is the Old Testament reading in the Communion service. There we find this moment of intense suffering in the midst of a great many promises: God will restore his people and make them prosperous and safe, and fill them with hope and peace. In our own celebrations of Christmas it is important that we dwell not only on the cheerful sentiments but also on the rougher edges of the story – the hardships that the holy family faced, the brutality with which the powers of this world pursued their as-yet-helpless Savior.
With the shock of the death of those children brought before our attentions this day, we are called to be spotless and pure, to “mortify all that is evil within us” (to slaughter and kill our sins) in order to love and glorify God more perfectly, in anticipation of the life to come. So still, have a merry Christmastide!