Why, impious Herod, shouldst thou fear because the Christ is come so near? On the feast of the Holy Innocents one of our regular Dominican contributors, Fr Richard Ounsworth, reflects on the horrid reality of their murder, and what it has to teach us in a world that holds human life cheap and which disdains both the sanctity of the womb and the lives of unborn children.
In his infancy narrative, St Matthew tells us of the slaying of the infant children of Bethlehem “and its surrounding district” by Herod in a fit of rage when he realised that the Magi were not coming back to tell him where to find the Christ Child. Since the fifth century, these murdered children have been commemorated by the Church as martyrs, and I suppose two questions come to mind: did this really happen, and are they really martyrs at all?
On the first point, for many Catholics there is no question at all: if it is in the Bible then it happened, and that is all there is to it. Others, though, are more comfortable with the notion that there might be legendary aspects to the Gospels, and the stories in both Matthew and Luke about the birth of Jesus undoubtedly have something of a mythic feel about them. Further, it is often pointed out that no other historical sources – not even the other Gospels, let alone pagan historians – tell us about this massacre. Surely they would have done if it happened?
I am not so sure. Bethlehem is not a large place, nor an important one – except to us Christians – and in the time of Jesus it was smaller yet, with its “surrounding district” just a few fields, hills and olive groves. The sad truth is that the murder of however many infants there may have been at the time, a monstrous crime though it is, would barely have made a ripple in the violent, stormy history of Judea. The grief and horror of a handful of families and their friends, none of them “important” in the eyes of history, could easily have gone unheard.
Indeed, one of the effects our celebration of Christmas should have is to sensitise us to the reality of unremarked suffering and misery throughout the world. It is not unusual these days, for example, for Christmas sermons to notice that the Holy Family found themselves torn away from home: first to Bethlehem, at the whim of the uncaring Roman bureaucracy; then to Egypt, in fear of their lives. These experiences are replicated today in the lives of countless displaced people everywhere, and we are invited to see in them a reflection of Mary, Joseph and the infant Christ.
In the same way, the deaths of the infants of Bethlehem – innocents indeed! – should surely remind us of the victims of cruel tyrants and callous soldiers everywhere: the slain in Ukraine, of course, and the other war-torn areas we know about, but also the hidden victims: murdered or ill-treated in the forests of Africa, the jungles of Asia or South America, in prisons and police cells, but also in quiet, respectable homes in leafy suburbs.
In modern society, we tend to have a very sentimental view of children. Rightly so, in my opinion – but then I’ve never had to change a nappy or clean up after a teenage party. In any case, the ancient world was not so, and infants were the lowest of the low and held in no great regard. The Romans thought nothing of abandoning unwanted babies to die – perhaps because they were girls, or because the family was poor, or because the child was sickly, or just because they were not convenient. When Christians refused to engage in this practice, pagans thought them foolish and even antisocial.On the Fourth Day of Christmas: Martyrs in deed, not will – Catholic Herald