The Feast of the Holy Innocents
Martyrs at the time of the Nativity of Our Lord
By the Holy Innocents, who are honored as martyrs today by the Catholic Church, we understand those happy infants, who, by the command of King Herod, were put to death, for no other cause than that the new-born King of the Jews might be deprived of life. When Christ was born, Herod, well known for his cruelty, reigned at Jerusalem. He was not of the Jewish nation, but a foreigner, and was therefore hated by the Jews. Herod knew this well; hence he feared that they would dethrone him, and he had several illustrious persons executed, whom he suspected of aspiring to the throne. Meanwhile it happened that the three Magi or Kings from the East came to Jerusalem, to find and adore the new-born King, who had been announced to them by a star; as they doubted not that they would learn more of Him in the capital of Judea. They therefore asked without hesitation: “Where is he, that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to adore him.”
This question seemed very strange to the Jews, and the news of it spread through the whole city, until it reached the King. His fear can hardly be described; for he already believed his crown and sceptre lost. To escape the danger in which he supposed himself, he called the chief priests and scribes together, and inquired of them where the Messiah should be born. They answered: “In Bethlehem, according to the Prophets.” Satisfied with this answer, Herod had the three wise men brought to court, and speaking very confidentially with them, he asked diligently when and where the star had appeared to them. After this, he advised them to go to Bethlehem and inquire after the new-born child, and when they had found and adored it, to return and inform him, as he wished to go and adore it also. These words of the king, who was not less cunning than cruel, were only a deceit, as he had already resolved to kill the new-born child.
Meanwhile the Magi followed the advice of the king, and, guided by the star, which again appeared to them when they had left Jerusalem, went to Bethlehem, found and adored the divine Child, and offered gold, frankincense and myrrh, as we read in Holy Writ. Having finished their devotion, they intended, in accordance with king Herod’s wish, to bring him word that they had happily found the Child. An angel, however, appeared to them in their sleep and admonished them not to return to Jerusalem, but to go into their own country by another way; which they accordingly did. When Herod perceived that they had deluded him, it was too late, and his rage was boundless. Hearing of what had taken place in the temple, at the Purification of Mary, that the venerable Simeon had pronounced a child, which he had taken into his arms, the true Messiah, the King’s heart was filled with inexpressible fear and anxiety. The danger in which he was, as he imagined, of losing his crown, left him no peace day or night. He secretly gave orders to search for this child; but all was of no avail; it could not be found.
After long pondering how he might escape the danger, his unbounded ambition led him to an act of cruelty unprecedented in history. He determined to murder all the male children, in and around Bethlehem, that were not over two years of age, as he thought that thus he could not fail to take the life of the child so dangerous to him. This fearful design was executed amidst the despairing shrieks of the parents, especially the mothers. How many children were thus inhumanly slaughtered is not known, but the number must have been very large. Yet the tyrant gained not his end; for, the divine Child was already in security. The Gospel tells us that an Angel appeared during the night to St. Joseph, saying to him: “Arise, take the child and his mother, and fly into Egypt, and remain there until I tell thee. For, it will come to pass that Herod will seek the child to destroy him.” St. Joseph delayed not to obey, and fled, the same night, with the child and his mother, into the land indicated to him.
As this had happened before Herod executed his cruel determination, God thus frustrated the plot. Herod soon after, received his just punishment. Several terrible maladies suddenly seized him, as Josephus, the Jewish historian, relates. An internal fever consumed him, and all his limbs were covered with abominable ulcers, breeding vermin. His feet were swollen; his neck, shoulders and arms drawn together, and his breast so burdened, that the unfortunate man could hardly breathe, while his whole body exhaled so offensive an odor, that neither he nor others could endure it. Hence, in despair, he frequently cried for a knife or a sword, that he might end his own life. In this miserable condition, he ceased not his cruelties, and only five days before his death, he had his son, Antipater, put to death. As he had good reason to believe that the entire people would rejoice at his death, he wished at least to take to the grave the thought that many should grieve, if not for him, at least for their friends and relatives. Hence, he had the chief men of the nobility imprisoned, and gave orders to his sister Salome, that, as soon as he had closed his eyes, they were all to be murdered. This order, however, was not executed by Salome, who justly loathed its cruelty. In this lamentable condition, the cruel tyrant ended his life, but began one in eternity whose pains and torments were still more unendurable, and from which he cannot hope ever to be released; while the innocent children massacred by him, rejoice for all eternity in the glories of heaven, giving humble thanks to God for having thus admitted them into His presence. The Catholic Church has always honored them as martyrs; because, though not confessing Christ with their lips, as many thousands of others have done, yet they confessed Him with their death, by losing their lives for His sake.
I. How happy were the innocent children to end their lives at so tender an age! Had they lived longer, they might have been among those who cried: “Crucify him! Crucify him!” and have gone to destruction. The parents of these children naturally wept and lamented, and believed themselves most unhappy, because their children were torn from them and cruelly slaughtered. They did not recognize the mercy that God showed them. Still, at this day, does the Almighty sometimes take children, by an early death, from their parents. That the latter feel this loss and weep and mourn over it, is but human, and is no sin; but they do wrong if they grieve inordinately, or even murmur or complain against the decrees of the Almighty. They ought to think, God is the Lord of life and death; He has given the children; He can take them away again, without wronging any one. They should also think that an early death may be a great benefit to themselves and to their children; for, God perhaps foresaw that the parents would neglect the education of their children and thus condemn themselves, or that the children would lead a wicked life, and thus go to eternal perdition. By taking them thus early, He benefits the children and the parents, and deserves thanks instead of complaint. At least, the parents ought to submit to the divine will, and say from the depth of their hearts, what they have often said with their lips: “O Lord, Thy will be done”
II. Herod undoubtedly did great sin in massacring, without just reason, so many innocent children. In our days, there are many who deprive an innocent child of its mortal life, or even endeavor to deprive it of the life to come. To the former of these belong all mothers, who destroy the fruit of their womb by imprudence or even by crime. In the same manner, those men, who ill-treat their wives, frequently become guilty of the same sin. Mothers again are guilty of it, who crush their children in sleep. To the second class belong those who murder their children before they are baptized, for without baptism they can never enter the kingdom of heaven. Secondly, all those persons who give scandal to innocent youth, either in word or deed; for example, when they speak impurely in their presence, sing bad songs, behave immodestly, or even entice them to do wrong. Thirdly, according to St. Chrysostom, those parents belong to this class, who, either by their example, or by neglecting to instruct their children, are the cause of many sins which their children commit. Further, those who do not duly punish-their children, and who do not earnestly endeavor to prevent their doing wrong. Lastly, all those who lead their own children into the path of wickedness and sin. All these are child-murderers. Of the latter, St. Chrysostom says: “Thus, parents, I say, are more vicious, more cruel than child-murderers; for, a murderer of children, as Herod was, separates only the body from the soul; while the others give the souls and bodies of their children to eternal flames.
Further, those who are killed would have died in the course of time, though they had not been murdered; while children neglected by their parents, might have avoided eternal death, had not the wickedness of their parents prepared it for them. Besides this, the general resurrection would have compensated for the bodily death, while the death and destruction of the soul nothing can restore. A child, condemned by the parent’s fault, has no hope of salvation, but has to suffer eternal pains. Hence I am right in saying that such parents are worse than child-murderers.” As there is no doubt that all the above-mentioned classes of people commit great sin, they make themselves guilty of eternal punishment. Those who give scandal to the young should remember the terrible menace of Jesus Christ: “He that shall scandalize one of these little ones that believe in Me, it were better for him that a mill-stone should be hanged about his neck and that he should be drowned in the depth of the sea. Wo to that man by whom scandal cometh!” “Wo to him,” exclaimed, one day, a dying man, “who has led me to evil.” “And how will these corrupted souls, one day, cry for vengeance at the throne of the Almighty,” says St. Thomas of Villanova; “how will they rage in hell against him who corrupted them or gave them scandal!” They also, who murder only the bodies of their children, will have to render an account, and may expect terrible punishment. The blood of their children will cry for vengeance against them, as did the blood of Abel against Cain. “The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth to me from the earth.” (Genesis, iv.)
Lives of the Saints: Compiled from Authentic Sources with a Practical Instruction on the Life of Each Saint, for Every Day in the Year by Rev. F. X. Weninger. Permissu Superiorum. New York: P. O’Shea, Publisher, 67 Barclay Street and 42 Park Place .1876.