Charred remains of a boy (Nagasaki, 1945). (photo: Yosuke Yamahata/UN)
Running for their lives (Tripoli, 1983). (photo: UNRWA)
A father still hopes to save his dying son (Ethiopia, 1984). (photo: John Isaac/UN)
“…lamenting and weeping bitterly…” (Shatila camp, Beirut, 1982). (photo: World Wide Photos)
Our celebration of the birth of the Savior tends to overlook a disturbing element of Matthews account of the Nativity. The hopeful birth of the long-awaited Messiah brings on the barbaric slaughter of innocent children. This report of fundamental human injustice is an important aspect of the good news of the Saviors birth. It shows that Christ entered human history and its real conditions.
Matthew alone tells the story of the Holy Innocents. Having followed the star to Jerusalem from the east, the Magi ask the ruling king of the Jews, Herod the Great, where to find the newborn king. Herod immediately wants to kill this apparent rival. When the Magi fail to return to help him find the child, Herod orders the execution of all boys under the age of two living in and around Bethlehem, the place pointed out by his priests and scribes. Only an angels warning to Joseph in the dead of night saves Jesus. The Holy Family hastily begins the long, difficult journey to Egypt, where they stay as refugees until Herod dies. Meanwhile, Herods henchmen brought death to families throughout the sleeping town and countryside. Some think hundreds of boys were killed.
Biblical scholars question whether this frightful episode of infanticide is a factual account or a literary embellishment used for theological reasons. Certainly Herod was capable of ordering the slaughter. A ruthless and jealous ruler, he had been responsible for the murder of his wife and sons as well as for the deaths of countless others. But the Gospels value is not primarily historical. Rather, it is a source of truth upon which we reflect, and to which we respond.
Matthew suggests that Christ became human in a time much like any other. The God of history entered in amid suffering and evil, especially the destruction caused by desire for power. Although the Saviors birth was inherently joyful, humanity barely noticed. People such as Herod went on with their business as usual, which included killing children to maintain power.
The murder of innocent children to keep political power is commonplace in human experience. In the Iliad Homer describes how the victorious Greek warrior Odysseus hurled Hectors infant son from the city walls so he could not live to avenge the defeat of Troy. Hebrew scripture tells of how the Egyptian pharaoh ordered the deaths of newborn Hebrew males to limit their growing numbers (Ex. 1:15-22). Other bloody episodes of infanticide down through history match Herods butchery. In every case violence intrudes on ordinary human lives, victims perish, and history pays little notice. This government-sponsored terrorism silences its helpless victims for all time.
The slaughter of innocents continues in our world like a plague. Modern equivalents of Herod plot political strategies which require or allow the murder of children. Sometimes a glance at a newspaper shows these deaths which follow from human design or neglect. More often, though, the deaths seem as insubstantial as statistics or headlines can seem to us, just as the victims of Herod can seem insignificant. This is business-as-usual in our world: Children die of starvation in Ethiopia and elsewhere in drought-plagued Africa, of political violence in Lebanon, El Salvador, and South Africa, and of neglect in the United States, India, and Brazil.
The news media report on only the tip of the iceberg of human events. The majority of innocent deaths remains below the surface of history. Infant-victims are found worldwide. But, as in Herods day, the routine spilling of innocent blood is barely news. We never know the victims names. We never hear their mothers inconsolable weeping. The corpses are kept far from view, and political strategies continue to put guns in the hands of people who murder children. Nonetheless, the blood of victims and the anguish of survivors cry out for justice.
Matthews account of the nativity contrasts two views of human nature. The killing of innocent children testifies to the worst in human nature when it attempts to hold power. It says that human life deserves no respect and should be treated with disdain. People like Herod claim as their own the power of life and death. Thus, their actions deny Gods sovereignty and the sanctity of life.
Christs birth challenges all that. It makes plain the best in human nature: Humanity shares in the sanctity of God. For this reason all persons deserve reverence. In turn, humans hold power as stewards of it for the service of others. Christs birth, then, affirms the sanctity of human nature.
Just as Jesus entered this world, we find ourselves in history amid human suffering and evil. In response, either Herod or Christ becomes our model. We choose to see humans either as merely physical beings in conflict with others, or as creatures with a spiritual nature shared among all. We deny or affirm the sanctity of life as the basis for all other decisions in our lives.
As we shape our lives, so we shape our world. Inevitably we are co-creators of it. This role links us to the continuing deaths of innocents. If we are not actively opposing such destruction, we are tacitly condoning it and making it possible. Business as usual would have us create an unholy world of death. If we reject Herods option, then injustice cannot be accommodated in a faith which calls for a witness to life. We then act on the belief that human nature truly shares in the sanctity of God. By doing so we make sacred our daily lives and the workaday world.
The martyrdom of the Holy Innocents is meaningless today unless we see them among the innocent victims of our own time. Their feast day on December 28 is a memorial to the countless nameless victims of official infanticide from Herods slaughter to the holocausts of Jewish children in Nazi concentration camps, of Japanese boys and girls in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and of Palestinian infants in Shatila and Sabra refugee camps. Only through witness against the Herods of our time against those who love power and death more than innocence and life can the Holy Innocents be adequately remembered.
Who can accept comfort when such injustice cries out, while this plague swallows up innocent victims? Who can ignore the extreme demands on our souls while our children are allowed to die? No matter where the holy innocents die each day in our world, their deaths are inexcusable evil and unredeemable by any circumstances.
The prophet Jeremiahs portrayal of Rachel, the Hebrew matriarch buried near Bethlehem, is a model for responding to this injustice: She is weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted for her children, because they were no more (Jer. 31:15). She responds with compassion and an insatiable thirst for justice.
Our world is the same one Christ entered: The Holy Innocents still die before their time. The Holy Family remains refugees seeking safety from murderous governments. Herod still relies on the active support and the benign neglect of others to make innocents suffer. Rachel refuses to be comforted.
At the same time, the Incarnation is a divine expression telling us that human life is sacred. This event challenges us to find courage to live up to the belief which is the basis for our hope and joy: Do not be afraid. Listen, I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people. Today in the town of David a savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. (Lk. 2:10-11).
Michael Healy is editor of Catholic Near East Magazine.