Holy Innocents – The Forgotten Feast
Reprinted from The Common Good, No 67, Advent 2013
There is a significant feast day virtually overlooked each Christmas season. The feast of the Holy Innocents is officially recognized by the Church on 28 December. It forms an essential part of the Christmas season, which stretches from the Nativity through to the Epiphany. Without it we only hear part of the Christmas story. Why then is it virtually ignored every year?
There are a variety of reasons for this. The birth of Jesus is such a joyful celebration. It comes with much feasting – and rightly so. For the right reasons, Christians in particular make it an important part of their year.
Then there is the timing. In the southern hemisphere Holy Innocents falls just as we take off for our holidays. Summer and the beaches beckon and, even if they don’t, most move into holiday mode. And that is good too. We all need a break at that time. In addition, the feast falls in the midst of the immediate post-Christmas sales boom, touted so much by the media and the business community alike. It can be a busy time. What it means is that the Holy Innocents gets buried in the flotsam and jetsam of the season.
Yet the significance of the feast is central to a proper understanding of the Christ birth and its implications for the human family. It can only be properly understood in its fullness, which includes the Holy Innocents and the Epiphany. That is the triduum of feasts which fully celebrate the Incarnation.
The Biblical account
The story itself is well known. According to gospel accounts, the three wise men from the east alerted Herod to the birth of Jesus, the long awaited Messiah, whom Herod would have heard about. Herod immediately saw this as a threat to his throne and to the power of the Roman Empire. For the Roman Empire, violent repression was the way to deal with dissent or threats as thousands of contemporary Jewish people had found out to their cost. Herod decided to deal with the Jesus issue by snuffing him out in infancy. He did what all dictators do. He sent the military in. Every baby boy under the age of two in the Bethlehem district was summarily killed.
This was a significant act of slaughter unleashed in an attempt to maintain imperial power.
It wasn’t the first time that an emperor had attempted to halt the plan of God in its tracks. The Pharaoh of Egypt back in the time of Moses had sought the same thing. ‘Every infant boy born of the Hebrew must be thrown in the Nile, but every girl may live.’ (Ex 1/22) This was an episode well known to the Hebrew people.
And so Herod unleashed his troops. Every baby under two was slaughtered within days of the birth of Jesus. We know he escaped though divine intervention and the courage of his parents who fled and hid in Egypt. They only returned after the death of Herod some years later when they settled in Nazareth.
This story should form an important part of the Christmas event because it shows clearly what empires will do to protect their power. The child Jesus is perceived as a threat to the ruling powers. Imperial power will brook no threat then – and no threat now!
Death of innocents
In brushing this event out of the Christmas story as understood by billions of people every year, aren’t we selling the complete story short? Aren’t we selling Christ short in understanding his full message? His birth and the message he came to proclaim, while Good News for ordinary people and the poor in particular, was a threat to imperial power. It was then. Properly lived, it is now.
It is not surprising that we are too often left only with the tinsel version of the Jesus story – angels singing, shepherds running, cattle lowing and a painless birth. No wonder such a story has such little impact on our contemporary world. We also know that the consumer society has itself largely hi-jacked the story in order to sell goods and maximise profits. Enter the North Pole reindeer and Boxing Day sales!
Just imagine if we put an appropriate emphasis on the shadow side of the birth story, the killing of the Innocents. Just imagine if we were seriously reminded each year of the response of the ruling powers to this tumultuous event. We might just take the birth as it was intended to be – a game changing event for the whole human family which re-orientates the relationships between and among people.
Imagine if we lived as if the divine spark in each individual person signalled by the incarnation was to take precedence over social status and power. Maybe then ‘justice would flow like a river’ for all, and there might be ‘peace on earth for all.’ That is the biblical vision of the Christmas story. No wonder it needs to be side-lined by the modern imperial powers!
The story of the killing of the Innocents needs to be placed also in a modern context. It is not just the children of ancient times who are the victims of mass slaughter. The killing of the Innocents goes on in our own time. There are children being killed every day through preventable war, poverty and domestic violence. There are 16,000 children who die each day around the world from hunger. These deaths are as real now as in the time of Pharaoh and Herod, except now they are conducted on a much larger scale. Even greater numbers are aborted, many at virtual full term. All over the world in so many ways young lives are snuffed out in infancy. Most of these deaths are preventable.
While we jingle and jangle our bells and sleighs in consumer frenzy, millions of children are threatened by the powers of empire right under our noses in our own time. The corporate empire which enslaves so many in factories and fields through sub-human conditions and starvation wages; the military empires which kill ‘to protect their interests’; the arms manufacturers; the abortion industry; the killing goes on and on and on.
Add to that the new weapon of choice, the armed Predator drones used by the U.S. military. They carried out 333 drone strikes in Afghanistan in 2012 alone – more than the entire number of drone attacks in Pakistan over the past eight years combined. The U.S. military has begun to use the term “harvest” to describe the killing done in this push-button combat of drone warfare. Recently the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in Britain documented 178 children among over 900 civilians killed by U.S. drones in Pakistan and Yemen alone. Why is there such an aversion to acknowledging the human cost of war? Drones are ‘harvesting’ children. The killing goes on in new guises.
The message of the non-violent Jesus offers much for our own time. Veteran Catholic Worker Ciaron O’Reilly points to the non-violence of the infancy narrative. ‘There are also stories of heroic nonviolent resistance contained within the Gospel narrative. The Magi break Herod’s injunction and refuse to return to him with targeting intelligence for his search and destroy mission against the Christ child.’
‘Today that resistance is echoed in the lives of whistleblowers Chelsea (Bradley) Manning, recently imprisoned for 35 years in the U.S., Wikileaks director Julian Assange, presently encircled by British police in the Ecuadoran Embassy in downtown London, and ex-NSA operative Edward Snowden, exiled in Russia. All three are being pursued by modern day Herods who would rather we were kept in the dark in relation to the nature of their murderous deeds.’
Is it any wonder that modern society has brushed the Feast of the Holy Innocents out of the Christmas picture? To focus on the systemic killing of innocents every year immediately after the birth of Jesus would be a very serious feast. Protecting children and the life of children would become central to the festive season.