Today, in the days following the feast of the Incarnation, we honor the memory those who were among the first to die as martyrs for faith in Jesus Christ. It is amazing that 2000 years ago we had very young people, innocents, killed due to sin and hardness of heart. The feast day for the Holy Innocents marks the martyrdom of an unnumbered group of boys aged 2 and under during the reign of King Herod. The murder of these young boys fulfills the prophecy of St Jeremiah:
Then was fulfilled that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet, saying, ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more.’ (Jer 31:15)
They did not die on account of their own personal misdeeds; a confession of faith was not required of them. Why did they die? We don’t know; that answer is known to God alone; but we trust that their eternal life is better than any life they had on earth; happiness, and beatitude. We know that they died in retaliation in Herod searching out competition. And Jesus was that competitor. As the Latin hymn says, Crudelis Herodes, Deum Regem venire quid times? Non eripit mortalia, Qui regna dat caelestia (Cruel Herod what do you fear in the King and God to come? He seizes not earthly things who gives heavenly kingdoms). Indeed, it IS his fear that drives Herod.
In our own era we have similar deaths of innocents –while not laying their lives down for Jesus in the same way, but violent and egregious nonetheless with the victims of abortion. Plus, we can’t forget the children plagued with human trafficking and domestic violence. Some young people are trafficked for sex, forced labor, immigration and war. Nonetheless, the killing of babies and the very young is unbelievable.
What does this all mean for our prayer and mission? Pope Francis said last year on this feast day: “To contemplate the manger also means to contemplate this cry of pain, to open our eyes and ears to what is going on around us, and to let our hearts be attentive and open to the pain of our neighbors, especially where children are involved.”
Archpriest David Petras wrote, “The holy innocents are only the first of thousands upon thousands who will have to die for the spiritual kingdom of God. God does not oppose the violence of this world with weapons or an army, but he calls upon all to hear the truth and to love and not hate. This part of the Christmas gospel may make us extremely uncomfortable – almost by definition, but it reminds us of the struggle faith will have in this world, and that every Christian must be prepared to offer his or her life for God.”
On this feast of the Holy Innocents during the Octave of the Nativity, the Christ Child and the innocents have something definite to teach us: that we are to protect human life at this very tender stage. In honoring these little ones we also reflect upon the need for our atoning for forgetting about the deaths of these youths. May the intercession of the Holy Innocents be with those in need, with all of us.