Now after they 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.’
On this day the Church remembers the slaughter of the Holy Innocents by a brutal and ruthless despot, Herod, known as The Great. Our reading begins with Joseph fleeing to the land of Egypt to protect Mary and their precious child. Then we hear of the sheer bestiality of Herod as he gives the command to kill all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under. It is so difficult for us to imagine such a horror, despite the many instances of such evil that still occur in our modern world.
Herod was a powerful man, but his power was fragile because it depended upon his being able to rule through fear. Herod knew that the time could easily come when his power could be undermined by those younger and stronger than himself. Herod’s paranoia in these matters knew no bounds. Before the birth of Jesus he had already ordered the killing of three of his own sons (Alexander, Aristobulus and Antipater) because he considered them to be potential threats to his own authority. For one who was able to behave in such a way towards his own children, ordering the slaughter of the young children of a whole community would not have been difficult, and especially when, through his brutal action, he hoped to crush a potential rival to his own kingship.
It is not possible for us to imagine such a level of cruelty and lack of compassion but, whilst we may not wish to wipe out large numbers of people, we are still capable of bringing about misery and a sense of persecution through the way we treat others. Every time we show our contempt for others, every time we put our own likes and dislikes ahead of the needs of others, every time we sit in silence and join in the passive/aggressive bullying of others we are proving ourselves to be just as heartless and uncaring as Herod.
Jesus, the one who was forced into exile, would go on to teach us of the importance of loving our neighbours as much as we love ourselves, no matter who or what they might be. Jesus’ ministry in this world would demonstrate that love, even to the point of his death on the cross. The challenge for us is to examine our attitudes and our behaviours and then to find the humility to recognize that very often we are the ones in the wrong; we are the ones who are ruthless in protecting the little ‘kingdoms’ we create for ourselves. Let us pray for the humility to be truly compassionate in the name of Jesus as we go about our daily business. Let us pray that we might make Christ’s healing known to those who are the victims through weakness and difference.