Without a doubt, the Feast of the Holy Innocents (December 28) is the most terrible event connected to the Christmas story. Matthew’s Gospel (2: 16-18) recounts how King Herod ordered the massacre of all the boys in and around Bethlehem “two years old and younger,” based on the information he had received from the Magi (Wise Men) about the time of the star’s appearance and their journey to Bethlehem, searching for “the newborn King of the Jews.” (Mt. 2: 2).
While scholars never found other ancient documents or other historical evidence to confirm this story, historians agree that Matthew’s description of King Herod is accurate. Herod was protective of his position and power. He reacted decisively and violently to any perceived threats against him: he had one of his wives and two sons killed because he came to believe they were plotting to overthrow him. The Herod of history would not have hesitated to try to destroy a potential claimant to his throne. This is a shocking, terrible and horrifying story.
The first reading for the Feast of the Holy Innocents is from the First Letter of John. It includes the blunt warning to believers: “If we say, ‘we are without sin,’ we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1: 8) As much as we might prefer to keep our focus on wicked Herod and respond with compassion to the families of the slain children, we cannot limit our reflection to these first century events told by Matthew without deceiving ourselves.
The truth is: we, now, in the twenty-first century, have become all too familiar with news stories about the violent deaths of children and the overwhelming grief of families, neighbors and yes, the whole world.
On Christmas, the Pope stands on the balcony of St. Peter and gives his “Urbi et Orbi” (“to the city [Rome] and the world”) Christmas message and blessing. This year, Pope Francis highlighted the plight of the world’s children:
We see Jesus in the children of the Middle East who continue to suffer because of growing tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.
We see Jesus in the faces of Syrian children still marked by the war that, in these years, has caused such bloodshed in that country.
We see Jesus in the children of Iraq, wounded and torn by the conflicts that country has experienced in the last fifteen years, and in the children of Yemen, where there is an ongoing conflict that has been largely forgotten.
We see Jesus in the children of Africa, especially those who are suffering in South Sudan, Somalia, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Nigeria.
We see Jesus in the children worldwide wherever peace and security are threatened by the danger of tensions and new conflicts.
We see Jesus in children who, together with their families, suffer from the violence of the conflict in Ukraine and its grave humanitarian repercussions;
We see Jesus in the children of unemployed parents who struggle to offer their children a secure and peaceful future. And in those whose childhood has been robbed and who, from a very young age, have been forced to work or to be enrolled as soldiers by unscrupulous mercenaries.
We see Jesus in the many children forced to leave their countries to travel alone in inhuman conditions and who become an easy target for human traffickers. Through their eyes we see the drama of all those forced to emigrate and risk their lives to face exhausting journeys that end at times in tragedy. I see Jesus again in the children I met during my recent visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh. (Pope Francis 2017 Christmas Urbi et Orbi blessing)
To these innocent, suffering children named by Pope Francis, we can easily add the children in our cities who have been injured or killed by violence, the children who are abused or neglected, the children who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, the children with serious illnesses, disabilities or other health conditions whose medical treatment or health care has been lost, the unborn children whose lives are terminated and those abandoned shortly after birth.
If the truth is to “be in us,” we must admit that today holy innocents are still suffering slaughter. To truly honor the unnamed martyred children of the first century described in Matthew’s Gospel and commemorated in the Church’s liturgy, we must respond to the endangered, suffering children of our twenty-first century world:
- Provide help, support and welcome to today’s families who, like Joseph and Mary, leave their homeland and become refugees to save their children from violence (cf. Matthew 2: 11-15) and enable them to live in safety and security, whether by returning home or a “Nazareth” of their choosing (cf. Matthew 2: 19-23)
- Protect children at risk of violence, abuse or neglect
- Protect children from human trafficking, free the children who have been trafficked and exploited as slaves, child soldiers and terrorists, used as prostitutes and pornography, child laborers
- Obtain safe, secure and stable housing for children and families who are homeless; expand opportunities for orphans, abandoned children and children necessarily separated from their families with loving foster care and/or adoption with loving, nurturing parents
- Provide health care for children who have been injured or traumatized by violence, for children with serious illnesses, disabilities and chronic conditions
- Prioritize and increase efforts and resources to end violent conflicts, protect civilians and establish peace
- Provide these innocents with the long-term care, therapy and support they need to heal from their injuries and trauma
Sadly, history and our broken, sinful humanity tell us that in our world we will probably always have Rachels “weeping for her children … because they are no more” (cf. Matthew 2: 18 from Jerimiah 31: 15) until the Lord comes again – and so we will be commemorating the Holy Innocents each year until the end of time. But we can save many children and can create fewer Rachels. If we honor the Holy Innocents, we must.