Holy Innocents: The cycle Jesus came to break

Today we remember the Holy Innocents, the children of Bethlehem slaughtered by Herod in his brutal attempt to snuff out the newborn Messiah. Joseph, warned in a dream, escaped with Mary and the infant Jesus to Egypt just before the bloodshed began. The victims of Herod’s jealousy are regarded as “martyrs in fact though not in will.”

Children are precious in the sight of God. Jesus welcomed the little children and admonished his disciples that unless they became like them, they would not see the kingdom of heaven. Yet, the remembrance of these innocent children murdered by a tyrannical king, coming only a few days after we have celebrated the birth of the long-awaited Messiah as a baby in a manger, gives us pause. Why did such an act have to take place? Couldn’t God have prevented it? After all, he did warn the Holy Family in advance and get them safely out of town.

The slaughter of the Holy Innocents makes sense only in light of the whole story of redemption. The birth of Jesus pierced the darkness of an old order which had the world in the grip of its fallenness and corruption. But that old order was not going down without a fight. Herod, the representative of that old order, would make one last desperate attempt to hold onto power. But the real victim of this murderous rage would be Herod himself and the fallen order he represented. The slaughter of the Holy Innocents was merely another turn in the seemingly endless cycle of violence and bloodshed that had held sway since the Fall. It was this cycle that Jesus came to break.

Paul says that Christ is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” in whom “the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” It is at the cross that the senseless finally makes sense. Jesus becomes the ultimate Holy Innocent whose shed blood brings redemption to all the victims of all the Herods the fallen world has ever produced.

Almighty God, out of the mouths of children you manifest your truth, and by the death of the Holy Innocents at the hands of evil tyrants you show your strength in our weakness: We ask you to mortify all that is evil within us, and so strengthen us by your grace, that we may glorify your holy Name by the innocence of our lives and the constancy of our faith even unto death; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who died for us and now lives with you and the Holy Spirit, world without end.  Amen.

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