Summary: This jarring episode is just as much a part of the Christmas season as the manger scene. Though grim, the fate of the Innocents shows us how and why we share the hope they had in Christ’s second advent
The Holy Innocents
The Gospel lesson that is read today is actually from the lectionary for the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which in the liturgical calendar is celebrated on December 28 – four days ago. The Book of Common Prayer lectionary assigns different readings for today. In the liturgical calendar, January 1 is the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ. But the rubrics in the Prayer Book say the following: “Upon special occasions the Minister may select such Psalms and Lessons as he may think suitable.” And, so, today, I have thought it suitable to use the lections ordinarily appointed for the Festival of the Holy Innocents.
This festival honors those infant martyrs slain by Herod. We do not know the precise day or the death of the Holy Innocents. The data in the gospel of Matthew shows us that the infants were slaughtered within two years following the appearance of the star to the Wise Men. In the Western Church, this event in gospel history appears for the first time in the record in something called the Leonine Sacramentary, which is something similar to our Book of Common Prayer that dates from the middle of the Fifth Century. Clearly, the festival had been observed for some time before that, probably from at least the middle of the Fourth Century.
This passage from Matthew is probably one of the least preached passages in the Bible, and it’s not hard to see why. Amidst all the Christmas cheer, it’s a harshly jarring and horrific note to strike. I remember the first time this was impressed on me. We had just taken up residence in Austria, and we were reveling in new-found Christmas customs in that land. One of them is a kind of whirly-gig – a tower of circular platforms which spin in a circle powered by a windmill set of paddles that are powered by hot air that rises from candles set around the perimeter of the base. On these spinning disks at various levels are the personalities you usually find in nativity scenes – one level will hold the shepherds and several kinds of animals from sheep to donkeys to cattle. Another level will hold Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus in his manger. Another level holds angels, and another the wise men. But in one display I saw on sale at a Christmas market, the artisan had included some Roman soldiers with drawn swords.
And, yet, that is what happened at the first nativity, the real nativity. No sooner than the angels have returned to heaven, the shepherds have returned to their fields, and Joseph and Mary are about to return home from Bethlehem, when an angel warns Joseph to take the mother and child and flee to Egypt. And, hard on Joseph’s heels come Herod’s soldiers, killing every male child two years and under, both in Bethlehem, and in all the territory surrounding it.
How about that for an addition to your home nativity scenes? Roman soldiers with drawn swords, looking for boys aged two years and under, so that they could slaughter them. Imagine how different the Christmas pageants you may have seen in churches would look if there was a scene of Roman soldiers slaughterings little baby boys. No wonder you don’t ever see that in a Christmas pageant. And, no wonder you don’t find a lot of preachers going out of their way to preach on this passage during Christmas.
So, as I have never offered a homily on the Holy Innocents, I have done so this year to accomplish three things. First of all, I want to shine a light on why Matthew included this episode in his gospel. He wasn’t trying to be gory and gross, though the murder of these children was indeed gory and gross. Matthew had another purpose and I want to say something about that. Second, beyond fulfilling Matthew’s purpose, this episode shows us something about the gospel of Jesus Christ which it is very easy to forget, and we must not forget it. And, finally, if we can muster the faith to receive it, there is a powerful hope that Matthew points to in the Old Testament, a hope for these slaughtered innocent children and a corresponding hope for ourselves. Let’s take each of these in turn.
First, why did Matthew record this event in his gospel? After all, Luke didn’t see fit to do so. Well, you will find the answer to that in the peculiar character of Matthew’s gospel. Students of this gospel from the earliest days note how Jewish Matthew’s gospel is – he is continually bringing in events or details, or making comments, which show us that he has primarily a Jewish audience in mind. Said another way, Matthew expects his audience to have a well-exercised cultural memory of their own Jewish faith and practice. And, so, Matthew is concerned most of all to show how Jesus fulfills all the Old Testament expectations of the coming Messiah.