Herod ‘the Great’ was appointed King of the Jews by the Roman authorities in Palestine and he proved to be ruthlessly efficient in his thirty-three years of dealing with his subjects. In Matthew’s gospel, he tried to persuade the Magi, to whom he played the host on their journey seeking the one ‘who has been born king of the Jews’, to bring word of where they had found him. His desire was to eliminate Jesus and, when he realised that the Magi had tricked him and left the country, Herod poured out his wrath on all the male infants in the land. These were God’s ‘innocent’ ones, paralleling the story of Pharaoh slaughtering the Hebrew children in Egypt.
O Lord, open our lips
and our mouth shall proclaim your praise.
whose children suffered at the hands of Herod,
though they had done no wrong:
by the suffering of your Son
and by the innocence of our lives
frustrate all evil designs
and establish your reign of justice and peace;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
If the Lord himself had not been on our side,
now may Israel say;
If the Lord had not been on our side,
when enemies rose up against us;
Then would they have swallowed us alive
when their anger burned against us;
Then would the waters have overwhelmed us
and the torrent gone over our soul;
over our soul would have swept the raging waters.
But blessed be the Lord
who has not given us over to be a prey for their teeth.
Our soul has escaped
as a bird from the snare of the fowler;
the snare is broken and we are delivered.
Our help is in the name of the Lord,
who has made heaven and earth.
Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit;
as it was in the beginning, is now and shall be for ever. Amen.
Now after the wise men had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they are no more.’
We are greatly blessed because we live in a society that strives to nurture and protect our young people, and all who are in need of love and care. Sadly, this agenda of care is not universal, even in the twenty-first century. It is our desire to safeguard those who are most vulnerable that makes today’s reading, the account of Herod’s slaughtering of the Holy Innocents, so very shocking. In the midst of the joyous, if highly sanitized, Christmas story we encounter a moment of sheer horror.
For all of us, the mass murder of young children is incomprehensible, but we are not living in first century Israel. We are not living in a perpetual political climate of tension and fear. We are not trying to survive in a land that is occupied by an efficient and brutal empire that has no concern other than total domination.
Of course, it was not the Romans who killed the young boys of Bethlehem. The Roman emperor had no understanding of the threat posed by Jesus; that awareness was to come much later. Rather, it was the Jewish king, Herod, who was to order this atrocity and thus fulfil the terrible prophecy of Jeremiah. Herod, renowned for his ruthlessness, was the one who had already killed members of his own family, including his wife. Herod would also go on to order the killing of many as he, himself, was dying – as a way of guaranteeing that there would be weeping on the streets at the time of his death. First century Israel was a very different and very dangerous place.
So what are we to make of today’s reading? Lying behind this horrific moment early in the gospel narrative is a message of hope. Yes! Hope! The killing of the Holy Innocents was foretold by the prophet Jeremiah, and it came to pass at the time of Jesus’ birth, on the orders of the one who claimed to be the king of the Jews. Throughout the Old Testament there are many other prophecies. Those prophecies foretell the life, and resurrection of the baby born in Bethlehem: Jesus, the Christ, the Anointed One of God, the one who was born to be the true King of the Jews. We live in a violent world and, in his turn, Jesus would become a victim of that human violence. But … Jesus would also transcend that human violence and bring resurrection joy to us all. And therein lies hope for the whole of humanity.
In the fulfilment of Jeremiah’s prophecy there is, indeed, weeping and loud lamentation. There is also an early signpost pointing towards the cross. But … as we reflect on that, let us still celebrate the birth of a very special baby, and let us also cling on to the hope of the joyous re-birth that awaits us all, no matter what horrors this world may throw at us.
Prayers of Intercession
For the holiness of innocence let us pray to the Lord.
We pray that the Church may grow in wisdom but never lose the simplicity of childhood. Give grace to those who teach the faith to children. Help us so to order our worship that all ages may join in your praise.
In a world where innocence is threatened on many sides, give protection to the vulnerable, gentleness to the cruel, and sympathy to the selfish. Bless and prosper the work that is done, by individuals or organisations, for the welfare of children.
Fill our homes with the love that helps children to grow in happiness and security. Bless all in our community who have the care of children.
Have mercy on children who suffer from cruelty and neglect. Protect those who are without food and shelter. Comfort all who mourn the loss of a child.
We commit into your hands the souls of all who have died in childhood. May they rest and rejoice with the Holy Innocents and with the saints whose course on earth was fulfilled.
Hear our prayers through Jesus Christ, who loves the little children.
Prayer for Christmas
Holy Child of Bethlehem,
born in a stable, laid in a manger,
no place is too low or mean for you to enter.
Come to us this Christmas time,
dwell in our hearts and homes,
and fill them with your love,
now and always.
The Lord’s Prayer
Let us pray with confidence as our Saviour has taught us
Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name;
thy kingdom come;
thy will be done;
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation;
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
the power and the glory,
for ever and ever. Amen.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
and the love of God,
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit,
be with us all evermore. Amen.
What child is this, who, laid to rest
on Mary’s lap is sleeping?
whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
while shepherds watch are keeping?
this, this is Christ the King,
whom shepherds worship and angels sing:
haste, haste to bring him praise
the babe, the son of Mary.
Why lies he in such mean estate,
where ox and ass are feeding?
Come, have no fear, God’s Son is here,
his love all loves exceeding:
nails, spear, shall pierce him through,
the cross be borne for me, for you:
hail, hail, the Saviour comes,
the babe, the son of Mary.
William Chatterton Dix (1837–1898)
and Compilers of New English Hymnal, 1986