Today’s feast of the martyred infants of Bethlehem, the Holy Innocents, injects a strikingly somber note into the Church’s Christmas festivities. (I am old enough to remember when this feast was even more somber, celebrated in penitential purple vestments and omitting the Gloria in excelsis.) Understandably, the slaughter of the Innocents gets relatively little attention in our modern appropriation of the Christmas story. The famous Coventry Carol, however, harking back to an earlier era, speaks specifically of this terrible tragedy. Originally, the sad lament was sung during the pre-Reformation Coventry Mystery Play by three women of Bethlehem, who enter on stage with their children immediately after Joseph is warned by an angel to take his family to Egypt.
The Gospel account of the mass murder of Bethlehem’s babies is sparse in details, with just a touch of sentimentality, a reference to Rachel, the patriarch Jacob’s second wife, the mother of Joseph and Benjamin, whose tomb still stands on the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Historically, we know that Herod was, as the Gospel portrays him, a tyrant terrified of any potential threats to his power. Famously he had two of his sons executed for fear they might become threats to his throne.
But, in the midst of so much suffering and tragedy, the Gospel is also effectively reminding us of an earlier mass murder in Egypt from which Moses had been saved, thus making possible the liberation of the entire people of Israel. Just as the story of salvation had been given a new start by the exodus of the Chosen people from Egypt, Jesus’ story symbolically repeats that exile and exodus, and the story of salvation is given a new start for the entire world with Jesus’ escape.
In the Gospel, Matthew quotes only Jeremiah’s lament of Rachel weeping for her children – a reference to the defeated and dispersed tribes of Joseph and Benjamin. But in Jeremiah’s text, the prophecy continues: Thus says the Lord: “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for your work shall be rewarded, says the Lord, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy.
The story of Jesus was not ended by Herod. The story of Christmas does not end in the massacre of the Innocents. It will end only with all of us finally coming back out of Egypt into the future of which Christmas is but the beginning and promise.
Homily for the feast of the Holy Innocents, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, December 28, 2023.