The Massacre of the Innocents - by Daniele da VOLTERRA - from Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
On December 28th we commemorate the Feast of the Holy Innocents. A truly great feast has a mixture of the sweet and the savory. Christmas is no exception. It is a bitter-sweet mixture of joy mixed with sorrow. We are familiar with the sweet side - the cuddly baby wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger. The angels singing His praises. The shepherds adoring Him, praising Him, telling everyone about Him. This is the sweet side of Christmas. And we rightly enjoy these things.
But the Church wisely recognized that sweetness without the bitter becomes a syrup of sentimentality, candy instead of nutritious food, dessert instead of a well-balanced diet. The fullness of the Christmas feast also involves bitter tears. The bitter comes in the days following Christmas. December 26 is the Feast of Saint Stephen. Stephen was the first martyr of the post-Pentecost church, who was stoned to death for proclaiming Jesus as the Christ. December 27 is the Feast of Saint John, the apostle and evangelist, who gave us the theological side of Christmas with the Word become Flesh. Though Saint John did not die a martyr's death, he nevertheless experienced in his own body the sufferings of the Cross, living at a time of great persecution and rising heresy.
Slaughter of the Innocents -
by DUCCIO di Buoninsegna -
from Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena
December 28, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, is perhaps the bitterest of the bitter-sweet days of Christmas. The liturgical color is red, not to match pretty poinsettias, but to symbolize the blood of the Holy Innocents, the baby boys of Bethlehem who died at the hand of Herod. We are reminded that Christmas has little to do with sugary sentimentality about a cute little baby in swaddling cloths surrounded by chubby cherubs or even less with the hectic crunch of what it is we call "the holidays". Christmas has to do with the Incarnation of God, God becoming man to give His life for the life of the world. And that also involves tears.
This whole episode makes no sense apart from Jesus. Apart from Jesus, this is simply another example of man's cruelty to man, a tyrant king's pursuit of power on the backs of his people, the senseless slaughter of innocent children. But Matthew tells us this took place to fulfill the Word of the Lord spoken by the prophets. Three times in this section, Matthew shows the fulfillment of God's Word. The flight to Egypt: "Out of Egypt have I called my Son". The death of the innocent babies: "Rachel weeping for her children". The move to Nazareth: "He shall be called a Nazarene". Nothing here is accidental or out of God's control. God's Hand is at work, working salvation under the opposite sign of violence and death. Hidden behind Rachel's weeping is joy. Hidden behind the defeat of God is victory. Hidden behind death is life.
The baby boys of Bethlehem died for Jesus that day so that Jesus could die for them another day. And it is in Jesus' holy, innocent, bitter suffering and death, that they, and all who receive Him through faith find their life. Their death is a picture of Jesus' death - a pure and holy sacrifice that conquers sin, death, Satan, and the "Herod" that is in all of us.
King Herod died shortly afterward. God has claimed you as His children. You are baptized. God has numbered you among the holy innocents of Israel. That means the death of Herod and all that is in conflict with God's Will to save you. It means your death, the death of your sin. King Herod must die, King Jesus must reign in our hearts. In the end, His life means your eternal life with God.
Massacre of the Innocents - by Pieter Pauwel RUBENS - from Alte Pinakothek, Munich
by Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen
Before Christ was two years of age, there was a shedding of blood for His sake. It was the first attempt on His life. A sword for the Babe; stones for the Man; the Cross at the end. That was how His own received Him. Bethlehem was the dawn of Calvary. The law of sacrifice that would wind itself around Him and His Apostles, and around so many of His followers for centuries to come, began its work by snatching these young lives which are so happily commemorated in the Feast of the Holy Innocents. An upended cross for Peter, a push from a steeple for James, a knife for Bartholomew . . . a sword for Paul, and many swords for the innocent babies of Bethlehem. "The world will hate you," Christ promised all those who were signed with His seal. These Innocents died for the King Whom they had never known. Like little lambs, they died for the sake of the Lamb, the prototypes of a long procession of Martyrs ------ these children who never struggled, but were crowned. In the Circumcision He shed His own Blood; now His coming heralds the shedding of the blood of others for His sake. As circumcision was the mark of the Old Law, so persecution would be the mark of the New Law. "For My name's sake," He told His Apostles they would be hated. All things around Him speak of His death, for that was the purpose of His coming. The very entrance door over the stable where He was born was marked with blood, as was the threshold of the Jews in Egypt. Innocent lambs in the Passover bled for Him in centuries past; now innocent children without spot, little human lambs, bled for Him.
"Triumph of the Innocents" - by William Holman Hunt
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