With Fr John Flader
I have always been intrigued by King Herod ordering the killing of all boys under the age of two after the birth of Christ. What made him fearful about the birth of Our Lord, why would he order the killing of all those under two and why do we celebrate this massacre?
THE events to which you refer are related in the Gospel of St Matthew: “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, Wise Men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.’ When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him …” (Matthew 2:1-3).
Herod then asked the leaders of the Jews where the Christ was to be born and, following the teaching of the prophet Micah (cf. Micah 5:2), they told him in Bethlehem, so he sent the Wise Men off to that city, telling them to come back to tell him where they had found the child.
Sometime later, when the Wise Men did not return, Herod “was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the Wise Men” (Matthew 2:16).
What made Herod so fearful? This was Herod the Great, the first of four Herods who appear in the New Testament. He was born in 73 BC, the son of non-Jewish parents, and died in 4 BC.
He had curried the favour of Octavian, who later became the emperor Augustus Caesar, and it was through him that the Roman Senate appointed Herod King of Judea, a position he held for 37 years. He practised the Jewish faith but was not considered Jewish by the Pharisees.
Herod had a persecution complex and saw rivals to his throne everywhere. He was notorious for his cruelty and killed over half of his 10 wives, some of his children and various high-ranking people.
These facts come largely from Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian who wrote at the end of the first century, and they confirm what is related in the Gospels. This makes it understandable that Herod would regard the “King of the Jews”, as the Wise Men reported to him, a threat to his rule, even though this new King was just an infant.
Why did he have all the boys under two years of age put to death? As St Matthew records, he did it “according to the time which he had ascertained from the Wise Men” (Matthew 2:16). One can only suppose that the Wise Men told Herod they had first seen the star the better part of two years before they arrived in Jerusalem, and that Herod would have waited some months for the Wise Men to return to him before he ordered the massacre.
Just to be sure, he probably added some months to his calculations and so the period came to two years.
Why do we celebrate this tragic event in the liturgy? The answer is that the Church regards these infants as the first martyrs to give their lives for Christ. Their death is considered a Baptism of blood, which brought their justification and salvation.
St Thomas Aquinas comments: “How can it be said that they died for Christ, since they could not use their freedom? … God would not have allowed that massacre if it had not been of benefit to those children.
“St Augustine says that to doubt that the massacre was of benefit to those children is the same as doubting that Baptism is of use to children. For the Holy Innocents suffered as martyrs and confessed Christ non loquendo sed moriendo, not by speaking but by dying” (Commentary on St Matthew, 2,16).
The feast of the Holy Innocents has been celebrated in the West since at least the fifth century, where it appears in the Leonine Sacramentary around 485. It is celebrated on December 28, in the octave of Christmas, as is the feast of St Stephen, who also gave his life for Christ.
Today the feast is often associated with the important work of protecting human life from the moment of conception.