Feasts of the Church

Feast of the Holy Innocents, Martyrs, 28th December

The Holy Innocents are the children who were slaughtered by King Herod, in the hope that by killing every boy born in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus, he would succeed in killing the new-born King of the Jews.

There was nothing about those babies that made them deserve death. Look at any one of them: they had no chance to do anything, or be anyone, or become anyone. They had done nothing: nothing good, nothing bad. They were born and then they died. So passive are these babies that some people struggle to understand how they can share the title of ‘martyr’ with people like St Stephen (26th December), who insisted on preaching the truth until his hearers stoned him for it; or St Thomas Becket (29th December), who insisted on living the truth until his king became irate. Unlike Stephen and Thomas there was no voluntary act on the part of these babies that usually makes the difference between being martyred and not being martyred.

In human terms this feast is a puzzle, and that is one reason God has inspired us to celebrate it. As we are reminded again and again throughout salvation history, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. Babies may not rank very highly on our scale of human calculus, but then neither do sparrows and God sees and counts every one of them.

The Holy Innocents, therefore, stand for the ‘unimportant’ and ‘unnecessary’ pawns, child and adult alike, who appear throughout human history; the ones who can be sacrificed for some greater cause because they ‘don’t really matter’; the eggs broken to make an omelette. There are plenty of them in one way or another. The Feast of the Holy Innocents reminds us that in God’s eyes no-one is unimportant, no-one is unnecessary, no-one doesn’t really matter. However meaningless their lives seem to us, they shine gloriously in heaven.

On a more personal level, the honour given to the Holy Innocents reminds us that if we die, or even suffer, for God’s sake it has value, even if we have little or no say in it ourselves. Honouring the Holy Innocents also honours the people they could have become, and their descendants as well; and at the same time, we remember the contemporary and continuing massacre of those who die before birth for the convenience of those who have them killed.