We finish today the Octave consecrated to the memory of the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem. Thanks be to God, who has given them to us, to be our intercessors and our models! Their name will not reappear on the Church’s Calendar until the return of the Christmas Solemnity; let us therefore devoutly approach these sweet Infant Saints—venerate them, love them, and address to them our farewell prayers.
The Holy Church, which on the feast vested in the color of mourning—and this out of condolence with Rachel’s grief—now, on the Octave day clothes herself in the red of her Martyrs in order to honor these Babes, who shed their blood for Jesus. Notwithstanding, she is full of tender compassion for these poor Mothers, who suffered such agonies of grief at the sight of the murder of their little ones: she continually alludes to it in today’s Liturgy and reads, in the Office of Matins, a passage from an ancient Sermon which vividly describes their feelings. We cannot withhold it from our readers. The Sermon from which it was taken was for a long time attributed to St. Augustine.
“When our Lord was born, there began lamentation, not indeed in heaven, but on earth! Lamentation for the Mothers, joy for the Angels, heaven for the Babes. He that is born is God: a victim must be offered him, and Innocents must be that offering, for he came to condemn the malice of this world. Tender lambs must be slain, for the Lamb who is come to take away the sins of the world is to be crucified. But the Mothers wail, because they lose their lambs that scarce have voice to make their bleatings heard. O wonderful martyrdom! O sight most cruel! The sword is unsheathed, and there is no enemy; jealousy alone spurs on the band, for He that is born would injure no man.
“There, then, sit the Mothers, weeping over their lambs. A voice in Rama is heard, lamentation and great mourning. These sweet pledges are not mere things entrusted to their care, they are the children of their own wombs; they are pledges, but they are not given, they are cruelly stolen from them. Nature herself is witness, it betrays the children whom the tyrant is in search of. The Mother tears her hair, for she has lost her beauty in losing her babe. Oh! how she sought to hide him, and the innocent one betrayed himself! He knew not how to be silent, for he had not yet learned to fear. The Mother struggled with the executioner; he seized her child, resolved to murder him; she clung to him, resolved to hold him to her bosom. ‘Why,’ she exclaimed, ‘why separate me from my child? I gave him birth, and I fed him at my breast untiringly. I bore him in my arms with fondest care, and thy cruel hand has dashed him to the ground! This fresh and lovely fruit—thus trampled on!’
“A second Mother bade the executioner take away her life together with that of her child: he would not, and she cried out to him: ‘Why dost thou send me away, having slain my son? If there was any fault, I only could be guilty: if there was no fault, let me die with my babe, and rid me of my wretched life.’ A third exclaimed: ‘What is it that ye seek? Ye are in search of one, and ye slay so many! and Him, who is One, ye cannot find!’ And again another cried out: ‘Come, O come, thou Savior of the world! How long shalt thou be sought for? Thou fearest no man: let these soldiers see thee, and so not slay our children.’ These were the lamentations of the Mothers; and the immolation of their Babes ascended as a sacrifice to heaven.”
Among these Children thus cruelly massacred, from the age of two years and under, there were some belonging to those Shepherds of Bethlehem, who had been called, on the Night of our Savior’s Birth, to go and adore him in his Crib. These, after Mary and Joseph, the first worshippers of the Incarnate Word, thus offered, to the God who had called them, the most precious treasure they possessed. They knew to what Child their children were sacrificed, and a holy pride filled their souls as they thought of this new proof of God’s singular mercy to them, in preference to so many others of their fellow creatures.
As to Herod, he was foiled in his schemes, as must ever be the case with them that wage war against Christ and his Church. His edict for the murder of every male child that was two years old or young, included Bethlehem and its entire neighborhood; but the Child he alone cared for and wished to destroy, escaped the sword and fled into Egypt. It was another proof of the world’s folly in opposing the designs of God; and in this instance, the very measure that was intended to effect evil, produced good—the tyrant enriched the Church of heaven with Saints, and the Church militant with so many fresh patrons.
Jesus, the newborn King of the Jews (Matthew 2:2), who causes Herod to tremble on his throne, is but a Little Child, without so much as one single soldier to defend him. Herod, like all the persecutors of the Church, has an instinctive knowledge which teaches him that this apparent weakness is real and formidable power: what neither he nor his successors knew was that it is worse than useless, and worse than folly, to attempt to crush a spiritual power by the sword. This apparent weakness of the Babe of Bethlehem will increase with his years; now he flees from the tyrant who seeks his life; but later on, when he has grown into Manhood, he will not escape from his enemies; they will fasten him to an infamous gibbet between two Thieves—but on that very day, a Roman Governor will declare this Jesus to be King; he will write, with his own hand, the inscription to be nailed on the Cross: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. Pilate will give Jesus, and with all possible formality, that very Title which now makes Herod turn pale: the enemies of Jesus will protest, they will insist on the Title being altered; but Pilate will not change an iota, and will say: What I have written, I have written (John 19:22). As on the day of his Crucifixion, he will admit one of the two Thieves to share in his triumph; so now that he is laid in the Crib, he will share his glory with the Innocents of Bethlehem.