December 28 marks the commemoration of Herod’s slaughter of the Holy Innocents. Particularly in light of circumstances here and around the world, it would perhaps be prudent for all Christian churches to observe the Festival of the Holy Innocents as a matter of public testimony.
(One of the best and most piercing imaginative meditations on the massacre, by the way, comes at the end of W.H. Auden’s Christmas oratorio For the Time Being. The passage merits meditation in its own right.)
The Order of Worship for the Reformed Church in the United States includes the festival in its traditional place. Commenting on the three festivals for the days following the Nativity, the editors say:
This Festival, in memory of the slaughtered infants, is celebrated on the third day after Christmas. Martyrdom was regarded by the ancient Church as a heavenly birth. Hence, the day of St. Stephen, martyr both in will and in fact, of St. John, martyr in will though not in fact, 1 and of the Holy Innocents, martyrs in fact though not in will, follow immediately after Christmas.
The Epistle reading for the day is Revelation 15.1-5:
And I looked, and, lo, a Lamb stood on the mount Sion, and with him an hundred forty and four thousand, having his Father’s name written in their forehead. And I heard a voice from heaven, as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of a great thunder: and I heard the voice of harpers harping with their harps: and they sung as it were a new song before the throne, and before the four beasts, and the elders: and no man could learn that song but the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth. These are they which were not defiled with women; or they are virgins. These are they which follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth. These were redeemed from among men, being the first fruits unto God and to the Lamb. And in their mouth was found no guile: for they are without fault before the throne of God.
The Collect follows this reading. The prayer opens with an allusion to Psalm 8. Herod’s action in the slaughter was a perversion of that Psalm: God had created man as the crown of creation, and yet Herod, given a place of rule analogous to that assigned to man in the Psalm, abused his position to carry out the wholesale butchery of the weakest members of the human race.
The “babes and sucklings” proclaimed praise, yes; “not,” however, “by speaking, but by dying.” They were infantes, “the unspeaking,” and the only sound that would have been heard from their lips on that day was a cry of terror and agony. Their dying was their testimony to the wickedness of rule without law and their screams a rebuke of Antichrist.
The prayer then beseeches God for a dying of our own: a massacre of the Herodian desires that lurk within all of us, which are anything but innocent. For we all carry the contagion, a moribund disease that would metastasize and eat our life from the inside absent the intervention of the Divine Physician.
In place of our internal love affair with death, our romantic and wheedling coaxing of that which wants to kill us, we ask for God’s grace to give us strength unto life, so that we who have tongues may ourselves proclaim God’s praise with intelligible speech, even as Psalm 8 says the infants do in their own mysterious and non-verbal way. But we ask more than that; we ask that we would proclaim God’s praise “not only with our lips, but in our lives,” as the General Thanksgiving for Evening Prayer in The Book of Common Prayer puts it.
Jesus was one of the infants of Bethlehem, and he escaped Herod’s decree and slaughter. But he did so only to forestall his death until the divinely appointed time. By that death, sins, even sins of the most heinous kind, can be forgiven. By that death, our own evils can be killed within us as we are made alive in him.
Let us pray.
O GOD, who out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast ordained strength, and whose praise the slaughtered infants of Bethlehem proclaimed, not by speaking, but by dying; mortify and kill in us, we beseech Thee, all evil propensities and wrong desires, and so strengthen us by thy grace, that the same holy faith, which we own with our tongues, we may confess also by the innocency of our lives: to the glory of thy great name, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen. 2