It’s just two days after Christmas and yet the story in the Gospel probably advances time by about two years. The Magi have come and gone and Herod, realizing that they had tricked him into believing that they would report to him the location of the Christ, is on a rampage.
The Massacre of the Innocents is the biblical narrative of infanticide by Herod the Great, the Roman-appointed King of the Jews. He ordered the execution of all young male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem, so as to avoid the loss of his throne to a newborn King of the Jews whose birth had been announced to him by the Magi. This event is framed as the fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy included in the first reading today: “Then was fulfilled that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet, saying, ‘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 account of the massacre of children by Herod is found only in the Gospel of Matthew. New Testament scholars question the accuracy of such an event. The number of infants killed is not stated; the Holy Innocents, although Jewish, have been claimed as martyrs for Christianity.
However, given the fact that several historians speak to Herod’s narcissism and paranoia about retaining his power, not to mention murdering his own sons, the killing of innocent babies is not a big stretch in terms of his proclivity to wickedness and violence. Indeed, the massacre of innocents in Newtown three years ago should tell us something about that.
How many were actually killed by Herod that day in Bethlehem? The Byzantine world estimated 14,000 Holy Innocents while an early Syrian list of saints stated the number at 64,000. Coptic sources raise the number to 144,000. However, New Testament scholars argue that, based on Bethlehem’s estimated population of 1,000 at the time, the largest number of infants that could have been killed would have been about twenty. However, even one would have been too many.
Whatever are the actual facts surrounding the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, putting on the calendar a day to remember the innocence of child victims who suffer in any way is most appropriate and reminds us of the tremendous importance of children, for at times our world does little to value or protect them. I hear a lot of political and religious rhetoric around respect for life, yet one out of four children is born into poverty in the United States and the slow, grinding force of deprivation takes a child’s life every fifty-three minutes. Children continue to be casualties of war and of the preventable horrors of starvation and lack of clean water.
They are victims of psychological and physical abuse inflicted by those whose responsibility it is to love and protect them. Children are easy targets of bullying which in its extreme expression often becomes the cause of self-inflicted deaths. Nor can we ignore the appalling rate of infant mortality in a land of unparalleled economic and medical advantage. If Alabama were a country, its rate of 8.7 infant deaths per 1,000 would place it slightly behind Lebanon in the world rankings. Mississippi, with its 9.6 deaths, would be somewhere between Botswana and Bahrain.Yes, the innocents of our time have plenty of evil Herods to fear.
Yes, it’s most appropriate to be thinking about the vulnerability of children for Christmas is surely a feast for children of all ages and the recognition of the Christ who identified with the most vulnerable, marginal, disenfranchised among us, especially the poor, the outcast and least among us. In the midst of the festivities of our Christmas celebrations, we come upon a day to consider our calling to protect and nurture children; a day that shows us God as vulnerable, fragile, refugee. The Incarnation—God coming to us in the flesh— requires of us that we create and empower institutions and policies that protect the child.
Considering the global implications surrounding the defenselessness of children, that may seem like an enormous, even impossible task. I’m reminded of the story of the man walking along a beach, watching someone in the distance picking something up and throwing it into the ocean. As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a teenager, picking up starfish one by one and tossing each one back into the water.
He came closer still and called out, “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?” The girl paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean. The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.”
“But, young lady, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly think you’ll make a difference!” The teenager listened politely, then bent down, picked up another starfish, threw it back into the ocean past the breaking waves and said, “It made a difference for that one.”
So each year at Christmas I try to make a difference for even just a few children. I make a contribution through Episcopal Relief and Development that will provide clean water for a household for a year. It’s a drop in the bucket, pardon the pun , yet I hope that there will be at least one family that won’t have to face illness or even death of a child because they did not have access to life-giving water.
If any of you would like to join me in that tradition, I’ll be happy to direct you to the Episcopal Relief and Development* website where you can make a similar gift or some other life-saving contribution such as medical supplies or nourishment for preschoolers.
And, in the end, just as with the hypothesis of how many infants were slaughtered in Bethlehem by Herod two thousand years ago, when it comes to the victimization of our children, no matter where in the world they may be, even one loss is too many. Jesus was very clear about it: let the little children come to me, for such is the kingdom of heaven. Remember the Holy Innocents of old this day. Pray for the Holy Innocents of our time.