The Feast of Holy Innocents
The Church commemorates today the first of the child martyrs, the infants of Bethlehem, who were slaughtered by Herod after he heard about the birth of Jesus. It is a day of joy and sadness. The Church is joyful because today, little ones have been gathered into heaven. However, the Church also mourns with the mothers who did not know their children’s happiness.
Today’s Gospel begins by saying that “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”.
This is the second message given to Joseph by the Lord. The first was an explanation of the virginal birth-giving of Mary. Now Joseph is given a command by the Lord as to how he was to care for the holy family.
Eastern tradition tells us that Herod slaughtered approximately 30 or 40 children. Such an atrocity was no problem for a man who had already slaughtered many of his relatives. Of his many children, Herod certainly murdered three of them and possibly more, in addition to having the favorite of his ten wives, Mariamne, strangled for infidelity. The Roman emperor Caesar Augustus is known to have remarked that it was ‘Better to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son’, knowing that Herod – a Jew – would at least abstain from pork.
But it’s not only the event itself that Matthew wishes to emphasize. He’s making a profound theological point. Jesus is the new Moses and the new Israel. The infant Moses was saved from death by his mother and sister who put him in a basket. He was subsequently found by the daughter of the Pharaoh of Egypt, who gave him protection.
The infant Jesus is also to be the new Israel. Jacob (who was given the name “Israel”, meaning “he who contends with God”) was at one time being pursued by his father-in-law, Laban. According to the book of Genesis, Laban wanted to destroy Jacob until the Lord appeared to him in a dream and warned him, “Take care not to threaten Jacob with any harm” (Genesis 31:24, Syriac version).
As the Maronite monks pray on this feast day: “The Lord invited the pure to the sacred feast of heaven; the guests arrived at the wedding feast, their garments stained with their blood. They who have been redeemed, first fruits of God and the Lamb, sing a new song. No lies are found on their lips: they are without stain before the throne of God”.