This day, December 28th, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, is the day we remember the most guiltless and precious children slaughtered by the evil of this unhappy world.
The Gospel says this in Matthew:
Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying,
In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.
The Catholic Encyclopedia has this to say on the day:
The Greek Liturgy asserts that Herod killed 14,000 boys, the Syrians speak of 64,000, many medieval authors of 144,000, according to Apocalypse 14:3. Modern writers reduce the number considerably, since Bethlehem was a rather small town. Knabenbauer brings it down to fifteen or twenty, Bisping to ten or twelve, Kellner to about six.
This cruel deed of Herod is not mentioned by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, although he relates quite a number of atrocities committed by the king during the last years of his reign. The number of these children was so small that this crime appeared insignificant amongst the other misdeeds of Herod.
Macrobius relates that when Augustus heard that amongst the boys of two years and under Herod’s own son also had been massacred, he said: “It is better to be Herod’s swine [ous], than his son [houios],” alluding to the Jewish law of not eating, and consequently not killing, hogs. [...]
But this “infant” mentioned by Macrobius, is Antipater, the adult son of Herod, who, by command of the dying king was decapitated for having conspired against the life of his father.
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.
In connection with them the Apostle recalls the words of the Prophet Jeremias 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.
I have in times past (back when I was an atheist) argued that the lack of any mention of the Slaughter of the Innocents in Josephus indicated it was an invention of the Gospel, one more evidence of their unreliability.
Such is the voice of ignorance. The argument is a frivolous one, rooted in my lack of knowledge of the conditions of the time. Herod was insecure on his throne, having just been elevated to that post by Roman meddling in a civil war. In the bloodthirsty reign of Herod, at a time of massacre and sorrow not unlike the Troubles of the Irish, the slaughter of twenty or so children would pass without notice.
Such mass killings happen in the modern world as well, both those that are remarked upon, often with considerable heartlessness and stupidity by those using such tragic sorrow to count coup against their political enemies, and those that are unremarked.
By unremarked, of course, I mean that those who, for unscientific and emotional reasons, are considered by the ignorant not to be humans, are destroyed without remorse or comment. (One estimate, for example, of the impact of abortion on the Black population of the United States holds that if trends continue unaltered, the Blacks will drop from twelve percent of the population to six percent.)
Other atrocities pass unremarked because they happen far from home, or because they serve no rhetorical purpose to be repeated. On December 14th, for example, twenty-two children were stabbed by a madman in Chenpeng village in Henan province province, China, the fourth such incident since March of this year. Such evil is found in every hemisphere.
Nor was the past some golden age free of these horrors. On July 25, 1764, four Lenape Indians walked into a one-room schoolhouse in colonial Pennsylvania and killed Enoch Brown and ten of his pupils. One child survived, scalped and demented to the end of his days.
Hell hates children, and always has, and always will. You can estimate the health of a culture, its unwitting loyalty to Hell or Heaven, by seeing how that culture treats its infants. Does the culture expose unwanted babes to the elements as the pagans did? Or regard childbirth as a blessing, as the Jews did, and do?
It behooves us to defy Hell by adoring and cherishing the more precious and most helpless of the lives among us. I urge everyone reading these words to solemnize this festive season by donating money, time and prayer to a worthy cause, to aid children who are sick, or in need, or who hunger.
(In case you are curious, one of my favorite charities is this called Heifer International: http://www.heifer.org/ . Their philosophy is that if you give a man an chicken to eat, he will be hungry tomorrow, but if you give him a chicken to raise, he will have eggs for life.)
This feast is in the very midst of the Twelve Days of Christmas perhaps to remind us of how infinitely precious every life is, and how dark this world is, and wondrous it is that an infinite love clothed Himself in flesh to be born among us, to bring a light to that darkness, so that we should not be lost forever.
Rejoice in the midst of your sorrows, ye good Christian men, for the child King is born to us!