On Tuesday of this Christmas week, we mark a day dedicated to the memory of children known in the Bible as ‘the holy innocents’. These were the children aged two or under who were put to death by the soldiers of Herod who ordered that they be killed. The jealous tyrant committed this atrocity because he felt threatened by the birth of a child in his area of rule who many prophesised would become the real king and usurp his power or even more seriously, the governing power of the Roman Empire. The holy innocents are commemorated at Christmas because they were put to death near the time of Jesus’ birth. Their brief lives glorify God and became the first of millions down over the centuries who would pay the ultimate price for faith in Christ.
Like everything in the Bible, the meaning of the Holy Innocents’ death extends beyond the historical event itself. The great English writer G.K. Chesterton once wrote that no other religion but Christianity was bold enough to shine a light on the very worst and very best of what human nature has to offer. Sadly, with the death of children, Herod’s actions reveal what is worst where the murder of children is the price he was willing to pay to stay in power and preserve the status quo. But the story has a happy ending because God’s purposes for his Son were not to be frustrated. Yes, Jesus would be killed eventually but not now. Not before he has outflanked Herod and beaten him, not by fighting power with power or might with might but by non-violent resistance, forgiveness, justice and love. Despite his best efforts, Herod’s kingdom would fall, as did the empire of Rome. But God’s kingdom lasts forever and is greater than any kingdom, earthly power of government. This is the lesson of the holy innocents. We can avoid God’s kingdom of justice, truth and right. We can opt out of it, act against it, and fight it. But we can never defeat it. We can never change what is wrong into what is right, just to suit us.
Today we think of all the holy innocents who suffer. We pray for children who are abused or have been abused and have had their innocence stolen from them. We think and pray for children in vulnerable situations in families, temporary accommodation and those born into poverty and destitution. We think of the children of Aleppo and those who are refugees.
Lastly, it is impossible to meditate on the holy innocents without thinking of the modern reality of abortion in our world. There are many aspects to the abortion debate and all of them need to be heard and respected. As part of that debate, one important fact will need be heard – namely that there are on average one million abortions in the world every week (See www. guttmacher.org/sites/default/files/factsheet/fb_iaw.pdf). Thinking about that fact in the light of the holy innocents, perhaps the best way to end this reflection is to bow our heads in silence.