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 our Lord.
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.’
In recent days our news has been filled with terrible stories of cruelty towards young, innocent and defenceless children. Some have suffered injuries that have brought about their death, others have been so badly abused that their mental wellbeing will be compromised for the rest of their lives. Some have been the victims of warfare and cultural strife, others have suffered in their own homes and at the hands of those who should have been loving and protecting them.
The stories of violence towards children always bring about reactions of shock and outrage. Declarations and commitments are always made that such terrible things should never be allowed to happen again. But … they do! Time and time again the young and the innocent are the victims of national and personal brutality, simply because they are weak.
In today’s reading we encounter one of the most notorious moments in scripture, the massacre of the Holy Innocents. We read of Herod’s anger and insecurity. We read of a powerful despot recognizing a threat and ruthlessly putting it down, even though that threat was embodied in those who were just two years old, or younger. Today, our hearts are hardened in a way that sets aside any ‘good’ Herod may have achieved during his long reign and focuses on his obscene cruelty.
Down the centuries the scale of Herod’s brutality has been exaggerated. In some commentaries you will read of thousands of children being slaughtered. But, Bethlehem was not a large city, it was a small hilltop town. There would not have been ‘thousands of children’ living there. This, of course, does not minimize our revulsion at Herod’s actions, but it may give us some insight into the political reasoning he may have employed … why not slaughter a few children if it means that the threat to his kingship is removed!?
The lesson in today’s reading is easy for us to grasp. Later in the gospel narrative, Jesus will reinforce this by gathering the children to himself; he will urge us all to be childlike in our lives of faith in order that we might become fit for our place in his heavenly kingdom.
In recent years there has been a growing awareness of the need to protect the young and the vulnerable. Different systems have been put in place to help us in that mission. Some have resented the ‘intrusion’ of safeguarding procedures. But, if a king, and others who are wealthy and powerful, can bring about such suffering amongst those who cannot defend themselves, perhaps we should not be so quick to condemn those who want to protect them!
Let us pray that we might play our part in nurturing and protecting the young and the vulnerable. Let us pray that we might offer them the unconditional love that Christ offers us. Let us pray that there might be an end to the suffering which causes premature death and permanently damaged lives. Let us pray for the courage to stand up and protect those who are persecuted just because they are weak.
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
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.