The feast of the Holy Innocents, falling appropriately enough within the octave of Christmas, might seem a troubling commemoration at first glance. Remembering the wholesale slaughter of innocent children in the region of Bethlehem? Yet this feast signifies certain theological principles that are not appreciated as they should be.
The story is a familiar one, recounted by Saint Matthew at the beginning of his Gospel, when the Magi returned to their country ‘by another route’, to avoid revealing to Herod the identity and location of the Messiah, whom he wanted to destroy as a rival to his kingship. Herod, realizing he had been deceived, in his rage decided to have every male child under two years old in Bethlehem killed, just to be on the safe side. One sees an echo of this in the original Terminator film, when the Arnold-android goes back in time to kill the mother of the future hero, John Connor, who would go on to defeat him and the rest of the ‘machines’. Not knowing who the ‘real’ Sarah Connor was, the implacable terminating assassin decides to kill every Sarah Connor in the Los Angeles phonebook, one by one…
For you sci-fi buffs of a certain age who may recall, the Terminator was not successful, and neither was Herod, for Joseph was warned in a dream to take the child and His mother to Egypt, until after the death of heinous Herod.
What may puzzle, even scandalize, our secular minds is that the children had to suffer in the place of the Christ child, whose own far greater suffering lay three decades in the future.
Yet it was this vicarious suffering which made these Jewish innocents martyrs. To be given that title, one must suffer in odium fidei, ‘in hatred of the faith’, which suffices in this case, with Herod’s hatred of the Christ whom he knew not, as every totalitarian dictator to some degree has ever since. Every murder of a martyr is an attempt to suppress the truth, and quell the troubled conscience of a king.
These Holy Innocents were not old enough to know this, and knew not, this side of their brief earthly lives, why they were being killed. Nor were they ‘Christians’ in any canonical sense of that term. They were not baptised, except by the blood of their offering. Yet in heaven they are, now enjoying the beatific vision; we know not how many. Some say twenty; others, hundreds. (Some revisionists even deny their existence, with the whole story a myth, but that, dear reader, is a heresy, for the Church has always taught that the Gospel stories convey the real historical truth).
What these Innocents also teach, without words, is that salvation is a gratuitous gift, one that God wills for all men. Although we do merit eternity by our good works, we should keep in mind that even this ‘merit’ is itself a gift. Beatitude far exceeds anything we can do, and is not something ‘earned’ in strict justice, with the proviso that we who are of the age of reason must do nothing to block or obviate this gift by a grave and mortal sin of commission or even of omission (recall the rather sobering parable of the sheep and goats Matthew recounts towards the end of his Gospel).
As such, these youngest of saints also give us hope for the salvation of all those who shuffle off this mortal coil before the age of reason, and before they can make a moral choice. Such was the opinion of the International Theological Commission, an advisory body to the Magisterium, which in 2007 discussed the fate of unbaptized infants, ending on a note that we may indeed hope and trust in their salvation by ways known only to God, Who is not bound by His sacraments.
This follows upon Pope John Paul II’s hope in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, writing to mothers who have had their children aborted , that after asking forgiveness of the Father through the ministry of the Church, “to the same Father and his mercy you can with sure hope entrust your child” (par. 99).
We should not mitigate the pain in the death of the very young, and the loss of children is still a suffering, a deep privation, and, in the case of deliberate abortion and infanticide, a grave moral evil; we should pray and repent for an end to the culture of death in all its forms (see Scott Ventureyra’s article for some sobering statistics, which bring to life Rachel weeping for her children, for they were not…)
But God can bring the greatest good out of even the greatest evil and suffering, for from the darkness, light shines forth.
So rejoice and be merrie this day in this festive season with these heavenly Holy Innocents, as we hope in the salvation of all infants, babies, children who have gone to the Father. It is we, grown old in our various sins and bad habits, who must regain and maintain some of their innocence. For as Someone once said, unless we become like children, we shall not inherit the kingdom of God.