Just a few days into Christmas and the liturgical calendar confronts us with the Feast of the Holy Innocents. “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under” (Mt. 2:16).
The hymn, Salvete flores Martyrum, reminds us that the Church views the slaughtered children as the first martyrs for Jesus.
All hail! Ye infant martyr flowers,
Cut off in life’s first dawning hours:
As rosebuds snapt in tempest strife
When Herod sought your Saviour’s life.
You, tender flock of Christ, we sing,
First victims slain for Christ your King:
Beneath the Altar’s heavenly ray
With Martyr-palms and crowns ye play.
I wonder if Jesus was remembering these children “when he called a child, whom he put among [the disciples,] and said,”
Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. (Mt. 18:2-6)
It seems that the innocent and innocence are always in danger of being slaughtered by the tyrants of this world. This is not about children only, however. The danger is real regardless of age. Whether we call it Herod, Archelaus, fear, poverty, war, hunger, injustice, violence, addiction, despair, sorrow, death, indifference, or any one of a thousand other names there is always a tyrant that seeks to destroy the divine life, a tyrant that wants to kill the holiness in this world, a tyrant that proclaims itself as ruler and denies God is with us. I suspect each of us can name times when our innocence was slaughtered and times when we slaughtered the innocence of another.
Yet all is not lost, hopeless. Herod is not the only actor in this story. There are others who show us a different way. They stand in opposition to the Herods of this world, offering hope, a different understanding of power, and a reverence for life. There is St. Joseph, spouse of Mary and guardian of Jesus. There are the wise men from the East. Herod destroys, Joseph protects, and the wise men adore.
The Feast of the Holy Innocents sets before us a harsh truth. “In the face of the Ultimate, one must either destroy or [protect and] adore” (adapted from Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, Fire of Mercy, p. 91). Within that truth is a question each of us must answer.