The Fourth Day of Christmas. Tomorrow’s Feast of the Holy Children (December 29).
TOMMOROW’S FEAST (December 29) OPENS UP ANOTHER WAY TO LOOK AT THE INCARNATION. Until now we have been gazing at the child in the cradle, the scene of the Nativity, the angels rejoicing. But Herod’s story was one of rage, jealousy, and fear.
Herod the Great, despite his high office as the Tetrarch of Galilee, was afraid of the long-promised Messiah. When he heard from the Magi that such a royal heir had been born right within his jurisdiction, he was alarmed and resorted immediately to subterfuge. Wouldn’t the Magi please let him know where he could find this child and worship him? Then, when the Magi foiled his plan, Herod employed a familiar tactic: violence. The slaughter of the innocents, so often depicted in great Renaissance paintings, is a grisly tale. How does this story of murder and bloodshed bring us closer to the Prince of Peace?
Herod was the leader of the Jewish people under the authority of Rome during the time of Christ’s birth. Cherishing his crown more than anything, he was threatened by the news brought to him by the Magi: that an infant born in Bethlehem would be a king, as the prophets had foretold. In order to eliminate this potential threat to his throne, Herod ordered that all male children in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under be killed. Herod personified all the ways that dictatorial power can oppress us. When we look around the contemporary world, we see that many are still cast in Herod’s mold: power-crazy, filled with rage, fearfully insecure. They’re threatened by the possibility that someone will overthrow them, and they’ll go to any lengths to destroy their rivals. But God is not on the side of oppressor. Divine favor rests instead on the holy child at Bethlehem.
In Christian tradition, the infants murdered at Herod’s command have come to be known as the Holy Innocents, or in the East as the Holy Children. The church regards them as martyrs because they died in Christ’s place, even though they had no choice. Beginning sometime in the fifth century, the church set aside this day to commemorate the martyred children.
As with the celebration of Stephen’s martyrdom on December 26, this day reminds us of the inescapable tension between good and evil in a fallen world. Today, the feast of the Holy Innocents has become a day to honor all young children. In England, this memorial is called Childermas, or Children’s Mass. Children are given a blessing; they sing in the choir and take on other special roles in the church service.
Herod was moved to violence out of fear. He failed to see the Incarnation’s saving power for all humankind, even for him. Of course, the extreme nature of Herod’s action makes any simple comparison with our own lives difficult, and yet at some level we must grapple with the meaning of this event. In our weakness and fragility, we are tempted to believe that we can be in control of our lives. But Christ disrupts our lives by coming into the world, challenging our sense of self-reliance. Can any of us say that there isn’t a faint shadow of Herod within us, fearful of this threat to our ego?
The Gospel of John puts it this way: “Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” On this day we should be careful not only to condemn Herod’s cruelty, but also our own blindness to the significance of the Incarnation.
~Adapted from Eugene Peterson, “History of the Feast of the Holy Innocents,” and Emilie Griffin, “Feast of the Holy Innocents,” in GOD WITH US: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas, edited by Greg Pennoyer & Gregory Wolfe