Today is a hard day, perhaps the most challenging of any saint’s day on the entire Christian calendar. Most clergy simply never mention it nor acknowledge it due to it’s disturbing content, but we are not most clergy nor most congregations. Today, December 28th, is the traditional date for the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the early 1st century Jewish cohort of infants which Matthew records King Herod genocidally liquidating to exterminate the one born King of the Jews.
As we can expect, this story and this date is haunted by controversy. Many dismiss it out-of-hand as pure Matthean fictive invention, driven by Matthew’s obsession with aligning Jesus’ life with the constitutive journey of Moses at every step. For Matthew, Jesus is the New Moses, the incarnational fulfillment of both Israel’s Torah and Prophetic tradition. As the Exodus Pharaoh liquidated Hebrew males under two years old, this critique goes, so must Matthew create a Judean existential threat to the Holy Family sufficient to drive them into Egypt. Then Matthew can “bring them out of Egypt into the land which God has promised them” just like Moses returning to the land of his patriarchal forebears, strengthening the Matthean message to late first century Jews that Jesus is Israel’s true Messiah.
This critique notes that even Flavius Josephus, the 1st century Jewish historian who enjoyed detailing Herod’s worst homicidal purges (including the frequent Herodian tendency to assassinate his own family members with some regularity, prompting Caesar Augustus to retort, “I’d rather be Herod’s pig than Herod’s sons,” as Herod kept Torah dietary protocols for good public relations), never mentions a Herodian genocidal purge.
But ironically, it is precisely reading Josephus throughout my adult life which convinces me otherwise. Josephus was not yet born when this event occurred, and Herod’s P.R. firm would have had every motivation to keep this de-legitimizing crime against humanity under historical lock and seal. Herod’s sociopathic bloodrage could easily have ordered the indiscriminate slaughter of infants and toddlers to protect his shaky claim to power. The church’s more orthodox stance is to retain this observance to remember the first, tragically unwitting martyrs of Christianity. I receive this somber observance as the church’s honesty about the needless, wasteful loss of human life whenever innocent blood is shed. For some, this day is a pro-life observance in the culture wars over abortion. For others, this day speaks to our species’ proclivity to repeat past atrocities as we selectively delete our historical memory of senseless murder. For most, we continue anesthetized through the retail medication of a holiday week, blissfully separated from long-standing church traditions strategically situated to balance this difficult observance with Christmas joy. Dear readers, I am not most clergy, and you, not most blissfully uninformed believers. Being an Anglican Christian means accepting the full tradition of our forebears, receiving their wisdom and occasionally amending their conclusions as God’s nature is continually revealed more clearly. Today please join me in the former and not the latter. Let us pray: We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit,, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.