The Holy Innocents (First Century)

Not everyone who dies for the faith chooses to die. Although martyrs are most often characterized by a willingness to surrender to death, there are many who died for the faith who never experienced a moment of “decision.” They were taken to death without consent, dying as victims. Many of them are nonetheless honored as martyrs of the Church.

This is especially the case in heartbreaking situations when those who die are children. The first martyrs for Christ were indeed children, as recorded in the book of Matthew. They died not because of anything they said or did, but simply because of the rage of King Herod, who heard that a child had been born who was to be “King of the Jews.” (Matthew 2:2) When Herod could not destroy this newborn king, he spent his rage on all of the other children under two in and around Bethlehem.

E-XTRA

The earliest Christians believed that King Herod's horrific massacre of children had been foretold in Jeremiah 31:15 (New International Version): “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more.”

The wise men, upon hearing of the birth of Christ, saw the rising of his star and started asking about this newborn child who was to be King. When Herod heard of this, he asked the wise men to find the child and then report back about his location. But the wise men, having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, disobeyed him and provoked his jealous rage.

E-QUESTION

Exactly how many children did Herod order to be killed?

There are disputes about the number of children who died under Herod's rage. While the Byzantine liturgy listed 14,000 Holy Innocents, a list of early Syrian origin mentions 64,000. Others believe that these numbers are unrealistically large and that fewer than twenty children may have died.

Herod was reportedly so brutal by nature — he may have even killed his own son in this massacre — that Augustus said, “I'd rather be Herod's pig than Herod's son.” (Macrobius, The Saturnalia) Herod assumed that his massive act of violence would end the threat to his throne. But like any ruthless leader, he created devastation without actually accomplishing his goal. Joseph had already been warned in a dream that he was to depart with the child to Egypt, and Jesus remained safe.

Many children died in his stead; this event is referred to as “The Massacre of the Innocents.” These children died without choice or knowledge of the person they were dying for. The agony of their parents must have been extreme.

These “Holy Innocents” have been remembered by the church since at least 485. They are commemorated on different days in a variety of churches. The Roman Catholic Church commemorates this feast on December 27, the Lutherans and Anglicans on December 28, and the Eastern Orthodox Church on December 29.

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