A few days after the joyful presence – and perhaps the sentimentality – of the child Jesus in his manger at Christmas, the liturgy of the Church invites reflection on something very dark, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, falling on 28th December. It commemorates the massacre of the babes of Bethlehem by King Herod, the monstrous tyrant ruling over Palestine/Judea. A puppet ruler, installed by the Romans, and a man so vile that he executed his own wife Mariamne, her mother and two of his own sons.
The second chapter of St Matthew’s Gospel narrates how the tragedy unfolded. After Jesus was born, the Magi, Persian wise men, came from the East to Jerusalem, inspired by the sight of a star to render homage to the infant Messiah, foretold by the prophets. The news alarmed Herod, afraid of God’s justice. Pretending friendship, he asked the Magi to let him know where the holy child was. The wise men did indeed find and worship baby Jesus but, warned by an angel in a dream, they did not inform the tyrant. Enraged, Herod ordered the extermination of all the male children of Bethlehem and the neighbouring region, who were two years old. Providentially, Joseph and Mary had taken their little child and escaped to safety into Egypt.
King Herod, in persecuting Jesus, was truly an emblem of Satan and his minions. The killing of the innocent is a crime that cries to Heaven for vengeance. Little children are vulnerable beings, harmless and innocent by any definition. How many perished at the bloody hands of Herod’s butchers? The Ethiopian and the Greek Churches in their liturgies count fourteen thousand victims on that occasion. Probably an exaggeration but the numbers are not as important as the horrible crime itself. Christians venerate the Holy Innocent as the first fruits and flowers of martyrdom and also as a token and a foreshadowing of the future execution of Christ. And the spotless sacrificial lamb, and of so many Christian witnesses down the centuries.
In the person of Herod and barbarity, we discern how ambitious, cruel and blind tyranny is. God is not mocked, however. The hideous tyrant did not live long to enjoy the kingdom for the sake of which he had shed so much blood. Haunted by the ghosts of his victims, remorse and despair affected his mood and disturbed his sleep. Herod soon became ill. A filthy and painful disease broke out all over his body. Ulcers tormented his flesh and worms and lice festered over him. The smell emanating from his loathsome sickness was so offensive that his courtiers could not abide it. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus relates that the tyrant, maddened by his sufferings, ordered many of his top-ranking subjects to be killed. ‘I know my people detest me and will rejoice at my death’, he ranted on his death bed; ‘I must make sure many of them will die with me!’ At last Herod expired five days after he had put another son, Antipater, to death.
Are murderous attacks on children, direct or indirect, distant, remote crimes that our civilised world has mercifully long overcome? I wonder. A devastating toll on children is the result of the Syrian conflict. The beasts of ISIS and al-Qaeda have even trained small children to become executioners. As to Yemen, according to UNICEF since the Saudi-driven bombing war on Yemen began an average of six children every day have been killed or maimed by explosive weapons. Kids are killed by Saudi air strikes on markets, schools and hospitals. On top of that, another charity, Save the Children, warns that more than two million children are malnourished and thousands have died from preventable illness. A deadly cholera epidemic has broken out and is infecting one child every minute. Over half a million cases have been reported so far. As for the little ones who are still alive, can you imagine the trauma, the terror, the psychological wounds inflicted by living under daily attacks from ferocious air strikes?
As to Palestine, the plight of many children under occupation by way of humiliation, imprisonment or daily harassment is all too well-known. A minor but, for me, a telling example of cruelty occurred years ago when the Israelis denied the children of blockaded Gaza that most natural and innocent of all childish pleasures: toys. Toys were among the items the Israelis forbade to be imported into Gaza.
Christmas is the great Feast celebrating the birth of the Messiah, the bright morning star, the same portentous harbinger of good news that guided the Magi to Bethlehem, to pay honour to the Holy Babe. Later in his earthly ministry, Jesus affirmed the high spiritual status of that precious, innocent age when he told off his Apostles who were trying to shield him from perhaps too lively little kids. He said: ‘Let the children come to me, do not hinder them. For to such belongs the kingdom of Heaven.’ And he took them in his arms and blessed them.