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.
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