December 28, 2021: THE HOLY INNOCENTS
December 28, 2021: THE HOLY INNOCENTS
Rank: Double of the II Class.
“Thus saith the Lord: A voice was heard on high of lamentation, of mourning, and weeping, of Rachel weeping for her children, and refusing to be comforted
for them, because they are not.”
(Jeremias, xxxi. 15)
“Out of the mouth of infants and sucklings, thou hast perfected
praise, O God, to confound thine enemies.”
(Ps, viii. 3)
O God, whose praise the Holy Martyrs, the Innocents, published this day, not by speaking, but by dying, mortify in us all our vicious inclinations, that we may shew forth, in our actions thy faith, which we profess with our lips. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, thy Son, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. Amen.
The feast of the beloved Disciple is followed by that of the Holy Innocents. The Crib of Jesus—where we have already met and venerated the Prince of Martyrs and the Eagle of Patmos—has to-day standing round it a lovely choir of little Children, clad in snow-white robes, and holding green branches in their hands. The Divine Babe smiles upon them—he is their King; and these Innocents are smiling upon the Church of God. Courage and Fidelity first led us to the Crib; Innocence now comes, and bids us tarry there.
Herod intended to include the Son of God amongst the murdered Babes of Bethlehem. The Daughters of Rachel wept over their little ones, and the land streamed with blood; but, the Tyrant's policy can do no more:—it cannot reach Jesus, and its whole plot ends in recruiting an immense army of Martyrs for heaven. These Children were not capable of knowing what an honour it was for them, to be made victims for the sake of the Saviour of the world; but, the very first instant after their immolation, and all was revealed to them: they had gone through this world without knowing it, and now that they know it, they possess an infinitely better. God showed here the riches of his mercy—he asks of them but a momentary suffering, and that over, they wake up in Abraham's Bosom: no further trial awaits them, they are in spotless innocence, and the glory due to a soldier who died to save the life of his Prince, belongs eternally to them.
They died for Jesus' sake—therefore, their death was a real Martyrdom, and the Church calls them by the beautiful name of The Flowers of the Martyrs, because of their tender age and their innocence. Justly, then, does the ecclesiastical Cycle bring them before us to-day, immediately after the two valiant Champions of Christ, Stephen and John. The connection of these three Feasts is thus admirably explained by St. Bernard: “In St. Stephen, we have both the act and the desire of Martyrdom; in St. John, we have but the desire; in the Holy Innocents, we have but the act. * * Will any one doubt whether a crown was given to these Innocents? * * If you ask me what merit could they have, that God should crown them? let me ask you, what was the fault, for which Herod slew them? What! is the mercy of Jesus less than the cruelty of Herod? and whilst Herod could put these Babes to death, who had done him no injury, Jesus may not crown them for dying for Him?
“Stephen, therefore, is a Martyr, by a Martyrdom of which men can judge, for he gave this evident proof of his sufferings being felt and accepted, that, at the very moment of his death, his solicitude both for his own soul and for those of his persecutors increased; the pangs of his bodily passion were less intense than the affection of his soul's compassion, which made him weep more for their sins than for his own wounds. John was a Martyr, by a Martyrdom which only Angels could see, for the proofs of his sacrifice being spiritual, only spiritual creatures could ken them. But, the Innocents were Martyrs to none other eye save thine, God! Man could find no merit; Angel could find no merit: the extraordinary prerogative of thy grace is the more boldly brought out. From the mouth of the Infants and the Sucklings thou hast perfected praise (Ps, viii. 3). The praise the Angels give thee, is: Glory be to God in the highest, and peace on earth to men of good will (St. Luke, ii. 14): it is a magnificent praise, but I make bold to say, that it is not perfect, till He cometh who will say: ‘Suffer Little Children to come unto me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven (St. Matth, xix. 14); and in the mystery of my mercy, there shall be peace to men that cannot even use their will.’ ” (Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Innocents)
Yes, God did for these Innocents, who were immolated on his Son's account, what he is doing every moment now by the sacrament of regeneration, in the case of children, who die before coming to the use of reason. We, who have been baptised by water, should be all the more ready to honour these Little Ones, who were baptised in their own blood, and thereby associated to all the mysteries of the Divine Infancy. We ought, together with the Church, to congratulate them, for that a glorious and premature death secured them their innocence. They have lived upon our earth, and yet it defiled them not! Truly, these tender Lambs deserve to be for ever with the Lamb of God! May this same earth of ours, grown old in wickedness, draw down the divine mercy on itself, by the love and honour it gives, each year, to these sweet Children of Bethlehem, who, like the Dove of Noah's Ark, could not find whereon to rest their feet.
In the midst of the joy, which, at this holy time, fills both heaven and earth, the Holy Church of Rome forgets not the lamentations of the Mothers, who beheld their Children cruelly butchered by Herod's soldiers. She hears the wailing of Rachel, and condoles with her; and, unless it be a Sunday, she suspends on this Feast some of the manifestations of the joy, which inundates her soul during the Octave of her Jesus' Birth. The Red Vestments of a Martyr's Day would be too expressive of that stream of infant blood which forbids the Mothers to be comforted, and joyous White would ill suit their poignant grief; she, therefore, vests in Purple, the symbol of mournfulness (Unless it be a Sunday; in which case, the colour used is Red). The Gloria in excelsis, the Hymn she loves so passionately during these days, when Angels come down from heaven to sing it—even that must be hushed to-day: and, in the Holy Sacrifice, she sings no Alleluia. In this, as in everything she does, the Church acts with an exquisite delicacy of feeling. Her Liturgy is a school of refined Christian considerateness.
By the Holy Innocents, who are honored as martyrs to-day by the Catholic Church, we understand those happy infants, who, by the command of King Herod, were put to death, for no other cause than that the new-born King of the Jews might be deprived of life. When Christ was born, Herod, well known for his cruelty, reigned at Jerusalem. He was not of the Jewish nation, but a foreigner, and was therefore hated by the Jews. Herod knew this well; hence he feared that they would dethrone him, and he had several illustrious persons executed, whom he suspected of aspiring to the throne. Meanwhile it happened that the three Magi or Kings from the East came to Jerusalem, to find and adore the new-born King, who had been announced to them by a star; as they doubted not that they would learn more of Him in the capital of Judea. They therefore asked without hesitation: “Where is he, that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to adore him.” This question seemed very strange to the Jews, and the news of it spread through the whole city, until it reached the King. His fear can hardly be described; for he already believed his crown and sceptre lost. To escape the danger in which he supposed himself, he called the chief priests and scribes together, and inquired of them where the Messiah should be born. They answered: “In Bethlehem, according to the Prophets.” Satisfied with this answer, Herod had the three wise men brought to court, and speaking very confidentially with them, he asked diligently when and where the star had appeared to them. After this, he advised them to go to Bethlehem and inquire after the new-born child, and when they had found and adored it, to return and inform him, as he wished to go and adore it also. These words of the king, who was not less cunning than cruel, were only a deceit, as he had already resolved to kill the new-born child. Meanwhile the Magi followed the advice of the king, and, guided by the star, which again appeared to them when they had left Jerusalem, went to Bethlehem, found and adored the divine Child, and offered gold, frankincense and myrrh, as we read in Holy Writ. Having finished their devotion, they intended, in accordance with king Herod's wish, to bring him word that they had happily found the Child. An angel, however, appeared to them in their sleep and admonished them not to return to Jerusalem, but to go into their own country by another way; which they accordingly did. When Herod perceived that they had deluded him, it was too late, and his rage was boundless. Hearing of what had taken place in the temple, at the Purification of Mary, that the venerable Simeon had pronounced a child, which he had taken into his arms, the true Messiah, the King's heart was filled with inexpressible fear and anxiety. The danger in which he was, as he imagined, of losing his crown, left him no peace day or night. He secretly gave orders to search for this child; but all was of no avail; it could not be found. After long pondering how he might escape the danger, his unbounded ambition led him to an act of cruelty unprecedented in history. He determined to murder all the male children, in and around Bethlehem, that were not over two years of age, as he thought that thus he could not fail to take the life of the child so dangerous to him. This fearful design was executed amidst the despairing shrieks of the parents, especially the mothers. How many children were thus inhumanly slaughtered is not known, but the number must have been very large. Yet the tyrant gained not his end; for, the divine Child was already in security. The Gospel tells us that an Angel appeared during the night to St. Joseph, saying to him: “Arise, take the child and his mother, and fly into Egypt, and remain there until I tell thee. For, it will come to pass that Herod will seek the child to destroy him.” St. Joseph delayed not to obey, and fled, the same night, with the child and his mother, into the land indicated to him. As this had happened before Herod executed his cruel determination, God thus frustrated the plot. Herod soon after, received his just punishment. Several terrible maladies suddenly seized him, as Josephus, the Jewish historian, relates. An internal fever consumed him, and all his limbs were covered with abominable ulcers, breeding vermin. His feet were swollen; his neck, shoulders and arms drawn together, and his breast so burdened, that the unfortunate man could hardly breathe, while his whole body exhaled so offensive an odor, that neither he nor others could endure it. Hence, in despair, he frequently cried for a knife or a sword, that he might end his own life. In this miserable condition, he ceased not his cruelties, and only five days before his death, he had his son, Antipater, put to death. As he had good reason to believe that the entire people would rejoice at his death, he wished at least to take to the grave the thought that many should grieve, if not for him, at least for their friends and relatives. Hence, he had the chief men of the nobility imprisoned, and gave orders to his sister Salome, that, as soon as he had closed his eyes, they were all to be murdered. This order, however, was not executed by Salome, who justly loathed its cruelty. In this lamentable condition, the cruel tyrant ended his life, but began one in eternity whose pains and torments were still more unendurable, and from which he cannot hope ever to be released; while the innocent children massacred by him, rejoice for all eternity in the glories of heaven, giving humble thanks to God for having thus admitted them into His presence. The Catholic Church has always honored them as martyrs; because, though not confessing Christ with their lips, as many thousands of others have done, yet they confessed Him with their death, by losing their lives for His sake.
Another account of the Massacre of the Innocents.
Our Divine Redeemer was persecuted by the world as soon as he made his appearance in it. For he was no sooner born than it declared war against him. We cannot expect to be better treated than our great Master was before us. He himself bids us remember that if it hated him first, it will likewise hate us, though we have more reason to fear its flatteries and smiles than its rage. The first make a much more dangerous and more violent assault upon our hearts. Herod, in persecuting Christ, was an emblem of Satan and of the world. That ambitious and jealous prince had already sacrificed to his fears and suspicions the most illustrious part of his council, his virtuous wife Mariamne, with her mother Alexandra, the two sons he had by her, and the heirs to his crown, and all his best friends. Hearing from the magians who were come from distant countries to find and adore Christ, that the Messias, or spiritual king of the Jews, foretold by the prophets, was born among them, he trembled lest he was come to take his temporal kingdom from him. So far are the thoughts of carnal and worldly men from the ways of God, and so strangely do violent passions blind and alarm them. The tyrant was disturbed beyond measure, and resolved to take away the life of this child, as if he could have defeated the decrees of heaven. He had recourse to his usual arts of policy and dissimulation, and hoped to receive intelligence of the child by feigning a desire himself to adore him. But God laughed at the folly of his short-sighted prudence, and admonished the magians not to return to him. St. Joseph was likewise ordered by an angel to take the child and his mother, and to fly into Egypt. Is our Blessed Redeemer, the Lord of the universe, to be banished as soon as born! What did not he suffer! What did not his pious parents suffer on his account in so tedious and long a journey, and during a long abode in Egypt, where they were entirely strangers, and destitute of all succour under the hardships of extreme poverty! It is an ancient tradition of the Greeks, mentioned by Sozomen, St. Athanasius, and others, that at his entrance into Egypt all the idols of that kingdom fell to the ground, which literally verified the prediction of the prophet Isaiah [Isaias, xix. 1: The burden of Egypt. Behold the Lord will ascend upon a swift cloud, and will enter into Egypt, and the idols of Egypt shall be moved at his presence, and the heart of Egypt shall melt in the midst thereof]. Mary and Joseph were not informed by the angel how long their exile would be continued; by which we are taught to leave all to divine providence, acquiescing with confidence and simplicity in the adorable and ever holy will of Him who disposes all things in infinite goodness, sanctity, and wisdom.
Herod, finding that he had been deluded by the magians, was transported with rage and anxious fears. To execute his scheme of killing the Messias, the desired of all nations, and the expectation of Israel, he formed the bloody resolution of murdering all the male children in Bethlehem and the neighbouring territory, which were not above two years of age. In this example we admire how blind and how furious the passion of ambition is. Soldiers were forthwith sent to execute these cruel orders, who, on a sudden, surrounded the town of Bethlehem, and massacred all the male children in that and the adjacent towns and villages, which had been born in the last two years. This more than brutish barbarity, which would almost have surpassed belief, had not Herod been the contriver, and ambition the incentive, was accompanied with such shrieks of mothers and children, that St. Matthew applies to it a prophecy of Jeremiah, which may be understood in part to relate more immediately to the Babylonish captivity, but which certainly received the most eminent completion at this time: “A voice in Rama was heard, lamentation and great mourning: Rachel bewailing her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.” Rama is a village not far from this town, and the sepulchre of Rachel was in a field belonging to it. The slaughter also was probably extended into the neighbouring tribe of Benjamin, which descended from Rachel. The Ethiopians in their liturgy, and the Greeks in their calendar, count fourteen thousand children massacred on this occasion; but that number exceeds all bounds, nor is it confirmed by any authority of weight. Innocent victims became the spotless Lamb of God. And how great a happiness was such a death to these glorious martyrs! They deserved to die for Christ, though they were not yet able to know or invoke his name. They were the flowers and the first fruits of his martyrs, and triumphed over the world, without having ever known it, or experienced its dangers. They just received the benefit of life, to make a sacrifice of it to God, and to purchase by it eternal life. Almost at the same time they began to live and to die; they received the fresh air of this mortal life forthwith to pass to immortality; and it was their peculiar glory, not only to die for the sake of Christ, and for justice and virtue, but also in the place of Christ, or in his stead. How few perhaps of these children, if they had lived, would have escaped the dangers of the world, which, by its maxims and example, bear every thing down before it like an impetuous torrent! What snares, what sins, what miseries were they preserved from by this grace! With what songs of praise and love do they not to all eternity thank their Saviour, and this his infinite mercy to them! Their ignorant foolish mothers did not know this, and therefore they wept without comfort. So we often lament as misfortunes many accidents which in the designs of heaven are the greatest mercies.
In Herod we see how blind and how cruel ambition is, which is ready to sacrifice everything, even Jesus Christ, to its views. The tyrant lived not many days longer to enjoy the kingdom which he feared so much to lose. About the time of our Lord's nativity he fell sick, and as his distemper sensibly increased, despair and remorse followed him, and made him insupportable both to himself and others. The innumerable crimes which he had committed were the tortures of his mind, whilst a slow imposthume, inch by inch, gnawed and consumed his bowels, feeding principally upon one of the great guts, though it extended itself over all the rest, and, corroding the flesh, made a breach in the lower belly, and became a sordid ulcer, out of which worms issued in swarms, and lice were also bred in his flesh. A fever violently burnt him within, though outwardly it was scarce perceptible; and he was tormented with a canine appetite, which no victuals could satisfy. Such an offensive smell exhaled from his body, as shocked his best friends; and uncommon twitchings and vellications upon the fibrous and membraneous parts of his body, like sharp razors, cut and wounded him within; and the pain thence arising overpowered him, at length, with cold sweats, tremblings, and convulsions. Antipater, in his dungeon, hearing in what a lamentable condition Herod lay, strongly solicited his jailer to set him at liberty, hoping to obtain the crown; but the officer acquainted Herod with the whole affair. The tyrant, groaning under the complication of his own distempers, upon this information, vented his spleen by raving and beating his own head, and calling one of his own guards, commanded him to go that instant and cut off Antipater's head. Not content with causing many to be put to barbarous deaths during the course of his malady, he commanded the Jews that were of the principal rank and quality to be shut up in a circus at Jericho, and gave orders to his sister Salome and her husband Alexas to have them all massacred as soon as he should have expired, saying, that as the Jews heartily hated him, they would rejoice at his departure; but he would make a general mourning of the whole nation at his death. This circumstance is at least related by the Jewish historian, Josephus. Herod died five days after he had put his son Antipater to death.
Parents, pastors, and tutors are bound to make it their principal cure, that children, in their innocent age, be by piety and charity consecrated as pure holocausts to God. This is chiefly to be done by imprinting upon their minds the strongest sentiments of devotion, and by instructing them thoroughly in their catechism. We cannot entertain too high an idea of the merit and obligation of teaching God's little ones to know him, and the great and necessary truths which he has revealed to us. Without knowing him no one can love him, or acquit himself of the most indispensable duties which he owes to his Creator. Children must be instructed in prayer and the principal articles of faith as soon as they attain to the use of reason, that they may be able to give him his first fruits by faith, hope, and love, as by the law of reason and religion they are bound to do. The understanding of little children is very weak, and is able only to discover small glimpses of light. Great art, experience, and earnestness are often required to manage and gradually increase these small rays, and to place therein whatever one would have the children comprehend. The lessons must be very short, and the truths which are taught, made sensible when possible, by examples, images, and comparisons adapted to the capacities of those that are to be instructed. The catechist, without demeaning himself, must become a little one with those that are little. This he must do with suitable gravity and seriousness; and it is only by his own earnestness and application that he can make them attentive and earnest. Were he at the same time to joke, or attend to, or be employed in any other thing, he would in vain recommend seriousness and attention to those that hear him. O how great ought to be the zeal of children and others to attend to that saving doctrine, without which man is a riddle to himself, and no one can attain to salvation and the love of God! That sublime science which “the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, came from heaven,” (St. John, i. 18) to declare to us. “The Queen of the South came from the bounds of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon: behold more than Solomon is here.” (St. Matth, xii. 42)
The solicitude and diligence of parents and pastors to instruct others in this sacred science ought not to lessen; neither must any one regard the function as mean or contemptible. It is the very foundation of the Christian religion. By this function the seeds of piety and religion are planted in the hearts of the faithful, which produce their fruit according to the manner in which they are received. A. good catechist contributes more toward maintaining public peace than all the laws and magistrates; as inferior ties of duty are far more binding than coercive force. Hence Pope Paul III, in a bull in which he recommends this employment, declares that “nothing is more fruitful or more profitable for the salvation of souls.” No pastoral function is more indispensable, none more beneficial, and generally none more meritorious; we may add, or more sublime. For under a meaner exterior appearance, without pomp, ostentation, or show of learning or abilities, it joins the exercise of humility with the most zealous and most profitable function of the pastoral charge. Being painful and laborious, it is, moreover, an exercise of patience and penance. Neither can anyone think it beneath his parts or dignity. The great St. Austin, St. Chrysostom, St. Cyril, and other most learned doctors, popes, and bishops applied themselves, with singular zeal and assiduity, to this duty of catechising children and all ignorant persons; this they thought a high branch of their duty, and the most useful and glorious employment of their learning and talents. What did the apostles travel over the world to do else? St. Paul said, “I am a debtor to the wise and to the unwise (Rom, i. 14). We became little ones in the midst of you, as if a nurse would cherish her children; so desirous of you, that we would gladly have imparted to you not only the gospel of God, but even our own souls.” (I Thess, ii. 7, 8) Our Divine Lord himself made this the principal employment of his ministry. “The spirit of the Lord is upon me: he hath sent me to preach the gospel to the poor.” (St. Luke, iv. 18) He declared the pleasure he found in assisting that innocent age, when he said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, for the kingdom of God is for such.—And embracing them, and laying his hands upon them, he blessed them.” (St. Mark, x. 14, 16)
Taken from: The Liturgical Year – Christmas, Vol. I, Edition 1868;
The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints, Vol. II; and
The Divine Office for the use of the Laity, Volume I, 1806.
“Then was fulfilled that which was spoken
by Jeremias the prophet, saying: A voice in Rama was heard, lamentation and great mourning; Rachel bewailing her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.”
(St. Matth, ii. 17-18)
All ye holy Innocents, pray for us.