Saint/s of the Day – 28 December – The Holy Innocents
Herod “the Great,” king of Judea, was unpopular with his people because of his connections with the Romans and his religious indifference. Hence he was insecure and fearful of any threat to his throne. He was a master politician and a tyrant capable of extreme brutality. He killed his wife, his brother and his sister’s two husbands, to name only a few.
Matthew 2:1-18 tells this story: Herod was “greatly troubled” when astrologers from the east came asking the whereabouts of “the newborn king of the Jews,” whose star they had seen. They were told that the Jewish Scriptures named Bethlehem as the place where the Messiah would be born. Herod cunningly told them to report back to him so that he could also “do him homage.” They found Jesus, offered him their gifts and, warned by an angel, avoided Herod on their way home. Jesus escaped to Egypt.
Herod became furious and “ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under.” The horror of the massacre and the devastation of the mothers and fathers led Matthew to quote Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loud lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children…” (Matthew 2:18). Rachel was the wife of Jacob/Israel. She is pictured as weeping at the place where the Israelites were herded together by the conquering Assyrians for their march into captivity.
It is impossible to determine the day or the year of the death of the Holy Innocents, since the chronology of the birth of Christ and the subsequent Biblical events is most uncertain. All we know is that the infants were slaughtered within two years following the apparition of the star to the Wise Men (Belser, in the Tübingen “Quartalschrift”, 1890, p. 361). The Church venerates these children as martyrs (flores martyrum); they are the first buds of the Church killed by the frost of persecution; they died not only for Christ but in his stead (St. Aug., “Sermo 10us de sanctis”). In connection with them the Apostle recalls the words of the Prophet Jeremias (xxxi, 15) speaking of the lamentation of Rachel. At Rama is the tomb of Rachel, representative of the ancestresses of Israel. There the remnants of the nation were gathered to be led into captivity. As Rachel, after the fall of Jerusalem from her tomb wept for the sons of Ephraim so she now weeps again for the men children of Bethlehem. The ruin of her people, led away to Babylon, is only a type of the ruin which menaces her children now, when the Messias is to be murdered and is compelled to flee from the midst of His own nation to escape from the sword of the apparitor. The lamentation of Rachel after the fall of Jerusalem receives its eminent completion at the sight of the downfall of her people, ushered in by the slaughter of her children and the banishment of the Messias.
The Latin Church instituted the feast of the Holy Innocents at a date now unknown, not before the end of the fourth and not later than the end of the fifth century. It is, with the feasts of St. Stephen and St. John, first found in the Leonine Sacramentary, dating from about 485. To the Philocalian Calendar of 354 it is unknown. The Latins keep it on 28 December, the Greeks on 29 December, the Syrians and Chaldeans on 27 December. These dates have nothing to do with the chronological order of the event; the feast is kept within the octave of Christmas because the Holy Innocents gave their life for the newborn Saviour. Stephen the first martyr (martyr by will, love, and blood), John, the Disciple of Love (martyr by will and love), and these first flowers of the Church (martyrs by blood alone) accompany the Holy Child Jesus entering this world on Christmas day. Only the Church of Rome applies the word Innocentes to these children; in other Latin countries they are called simply Infantes and the feast had the title “Allisio infantium” (Brev. Goth.), “Natale infantum”, or “Necatio infantum”. The Armenians keep it on Monday after the Second Sunday after Pentecost (Armenian Menology, 11 May), because they believe the Holy Innocents were killed fifteen weeks after the birth of Christ.
The Roman Station of 28 December is at St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, because that church is believed to possess the bodies of several of the Holy Innocents. A portion of these relics was transferred by Sixtus V to Santa Maria Maggiore (feast on 5 May; it is a semi-double). The church of St. Justina at Padua, the cathedrals of Lisbon and Milan, and other churches also preserve bodies which they claim to be those of some of the Holy Innocents. In many churches in England, Germany, and France on the feast of St. Nicholas (6 December) a boy-bishop was elected, who officiated on the feast of St. Nicholas and of the Holy Innocents. He wore a mitre and other pontifical insignia, sang the collect, preached, and gave the blessing. He sat in the bishop’s chair whilst the choir-boys sang in the stalls of the canons. They directed the choir on these two days and had their solemn procession (Schmidt, “Thesaurus jur eccl.”, III, 67 sqq.; Kirchenlex., IV, 1400; P.L., CXLVII, 135).