When the magi had departed, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said,
“Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt,
and stay there until I tell you.
Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.”
Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night
and departed for Egypt.
He stayed there until the death of Herod,
that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled,
Out of Egypt I called my son.
When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi,
he became furious.
He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity
two years old and under,
in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi.
Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet:
A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loud lamentation;
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she would not be consoled,
since they were no more. (Matthew 2, 13-18)
The Feast of the Holy Innocents has its origin in Matthew’s gospel which describes events after the visit of the magi from the east who, led by a star, come searching for the new-born king of the Jews.
An angel tells Joseph in a dream to take the Child and his mother into the safety of Egypt because Herod the Great will search for the Child to destroy him. They will stay there till the death of Herod.
Other children born in Bethlehem will not escape the powerful ruler, who orders a massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem two years old and under.
Matthew’s gospel is the only source for the massacre of innocent children in Bethlehem by Herod the Great. No historical source from the time mentions it. The massacre is not inconceivable, though, since Herod was notoriously cruel and capable of actions like this, especially when his own power was threatened. His thirst for power led him to kill a wife and three sons in intrigues over succession to his throne, historians of the time report. There were countless other innocent victims of Herod besides.
The Feast of the Holy Innocents is a reminder of evil in our world, evil that seems to control all, evil that can seem to overwhelm the “great joy that is for you and all the people.” The problem of the suffering of the innocent is never far from us. Philosophers, ordinary people, all of us face it in different ways. Matthew’s gospel sums it up in the slaughter of the innocents of Bethlehem. Why does God permit such a thing?
The Child Jesus will return from Egypt on a journey his ancestors made before him. Innocent, he will stand later before Pontius Pilate, who will condemn him to a cruel death. And he will rise again from the dead, with the promise of life for those who share in a death like his. Our feast today sees the children of Bethlehem safe in God’s hands, in God’s presence.
“Clothed in white robes, they will walk with me, says the Lord, for they are worthy.” (Antiphon for the Feast of the Holy Innocents)
Matthew’s story is directed, first of all, to Jewish Christians living after Jerusalem has been destroyed and thousands killed by a massive Roman army in 70 AD. Why did God permit this, they ask? Where is the kingdom Jesus Christ promised would come? His message is meant for us too.
Evil will not triumph, Matthew writes. Powerful forces like Herod and the Romans stride the world seemingly unopposed; they take innocent lives, but God will save the weak, the small, the helpless through Jesus, his Son. Another stage in God’s plan is beginning, magi bring his message to other nations. God’s kingdom will come.
Still, Matthew ends his story recognizing the experience of those who must bear suffering in the meantime. He hears the sobbing and the loud lamentation: “Rachel weeping for her children, and she would not be consoled, since they were no more.”
“She would not be consoled, since they were no more.”