Friday, December 28, 2012

Holy Innocents

Today's feast of the Holy Innocents, on this "Fourth Day of Christmas," is known to have been celebrated in this Christmas week since at least 485 A.D., along with the feasts of St. Stephen, the 1st Martyr, and St. John, the Apostle and Evangelist, on December 26 and 27 respectively.   It has been suggested (cf. The Catholic Encyclopedia) that these three days commemorate Stephen (as a martyr by will, by love, and by blood), John, (as a "martyr" only by will and by love), and the Infants of Bethelehem murdered by King Herod (as martyrs by blood only). As an explanation for the celebration of these three within the week of Christmas, that is certainly an edifying, if also a somewhat imaginative one!
At "saints' school," great emphasis was put on the proper requirements for martyrdom.- the "material" element of actual death and the "formal" element of motive, both the motive of the persecutor and the motive of the persecuted. Our textbook insisted on l'accettazione volontaria della morte per amore della fede (the voluntary acceptance of death for love of the faith). Now whatever else we may want to say about the Hoy Innocents, that criterion clearly could not have been fulfilled by them. So what then is the significance of their death and their veneration by the Church as martyrs?
In ancient and medieval times, in both eastern and western Churches, a seemingly astronomical number of Holy Innocents was postulated (even as many as 144,000 - to harmonize with Revelation 14:3). In reality, of course, Bethlehem was a tiny little town. In all likelihood, there might have been perhaps a dozen victims - probably even fewer. Hence the lack of any reference to this event in any secular source. Herod's atrocities were many and so well known that this particular crime could well have seemed small and would hardly have attracted much notice outside of Bethlehem itself. (The supposition that the Basilica of St. Paul's Outside the walls - the stational church for this feast - contains the actual relics of the Holy Innocents might likewise seem somewhat less than certain).
Until 1960, in the Roman Rite the liturgical color for today's feast was purple - not martyrs' red - and both the Gloria and the Alleluia were omitted (except when the feast fell on a Sunday). While the use of penitential purple was much more common then than it is now, its use on one of the 12 Days of Christmas certainly stood out and suggests that, while the title of martyr may have been bestowed upon them by the Church, the Holy Innocents are in a category all their own. This feast, it seems to me, speaks to us less about martyrdom as such, than about the world's rejection of Christ (which in turn, of course, creates the basis for all authentic martyrdom).
Certainly the story as told by Matthew is only incidentally about Herod's homicidal personality and primarily about his rejection of Christ. What captures it for me is the curious line in the Gospel, when herod hears about the Magi's arrival in Jerusalem: When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled (Matthew 2:3). What the Magi (and elsewhere the shepherds) had greeted with joy, Herod found troubling. And not just Herod! The account continues: and all Jerusalem with him. In Herod's case, of course, we know he was worried - in his case a worry bordering on paranoia - about threats to his power. This was a misplaced fear, a clear case of missing the point. “To save his kingdom Herod resolves to kill [Jesus], though if he would have faith in the child, he himself would reign in peace in this life and for ever in the life to come” (St. Quodvultdeus).

Yet Jesus was a threat to the worldview of Herod and others like him. The world's rejection of Jesus is irrational in the sense St. Quodvultdeus intended, but it may seem rational in the sense that the good news of the gospel may translate as bad news if one's will and heart are totally given over to the world's agenda of power, domination, and control. It was the human tragedy fo the Holy Innocents to be caught up among history's many victims of thew world's insatiable lust for power, dominaiton, and control. It was their unique privilege to suffer as unwitting witnesses to the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us as the definitive alternative to that.

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