Holy Innocents Today

by Michael Healy

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Our celebration of the birth of the Savior tends to overlook a disturbing element of Matthew’s account of the Nativity. The hopeful birth of the long-awaited Messiah brings on the barbaric slaughter of innocent children. This report of fundamental human injustice is an important aspect of the “good news” of the Savior’s birth. It shows that Christ entered human history and its real conditions.

Matthew alone tells the story of the Holy Innocents. Having followed the star to Jerusalem from the east, the Magi ask the ruling king of the Jews, Herod the Great, where to find the newborn king. Herod immediately wants to kill this apparent rival. When the Magi fail to return to help him find the child, Herod orders the execution of all boys under the age of two living in and around Bethlehem, the place pointed out by his priests and scribes. Only an angel’s warning to Joseph in the dead of night saves Jesus. The Holy Family hastily begins the long, difficult journey to Egypt, where they stay as refugees until Herod dies. Meanwhile, Herod’s henchmen brought death to families throughout the sleeping town and countryside. Some think hundreds of boys were killed.

Biblical scholars question whether this frightful episode of infanticide is a factual account or a literary embellishment used for theological reasons. Certainly Herod was capable of ordering the slaughter. A ruthless and jealous ruler, he had been responsible for the murder of his wife and sons as well as for the deaths of countless others. But the Gospel’s value is not primarily historical. Rather, it is a source of truth upon which we reflect, and to which we respond.

Matthew suggests that Christ became human in a time much like any other. The God of history entered in amid suffering and evil, especially the destruction caused by desire for power. Although the Savior’s birth was inherently joyful, humanity barely noticed. People such as Herod went on with their business as usual, which included killing children to maintain power.

The murder of innocent children to keep political power is commonplace in human experience. In the Iliad Homer describes how the victorious Greek warrior Odysseus hurled Hector’s infant son from the city walls so he could not live to avenge the defeat of Troy. Hebrew scripture tells of how the Egyptian pharaoh ordered the deaths of newborn Hebrew males to limit their growing numbers (Ex. 1:15-22). Other bloody episodes of infanticide down through history match Herod’s butchery. In every case violence intrudes on ordinary human lives, victims perish, and history pays little notice. This government-sponsored terrorism silences its helpless victims for all time.

The slaughter of innocents continues in our world like a plague. Modern equivalents of Herod plot political strategies which require or allow the murder of children. Sometimes a glance at a newspaper shows these deaths which follow from human design or neglect. More often, though, the deaths seem as insubstantial as statistics or headlines can seem to us, just as the victims of Herod can seem insignificant. This is business-as-usual in our world: Children die of starvation in Ethiopia and elsewhere in drought-plagued Africa, of political violence in Lebanon, El Salvador, and South Africa, and of neglect in the United States, India, and Brazil.

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