The Massacre of the Holy Innocents

The Massacre of the Holy Innocents

Three days after Christmas, on December 28, the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Holy Innocents.  On this day, we commemorate in a special way the innocent babies who were massacred by King Herod. 

What utter insanity would cause a human being to massacre innocent babies? 

On the other hand, what kind of unspeakable anguish would devastate the mothers as they watch helplessly their innocent babies being slaughtered? What untold suffering would torture the mothers as they lived the remaining days of their lives haunted by the horror and grief of the useless, unjust and brutal massacre of their lovely babies in a manner which is a punishment too cruel even for hardened criminals or dangerous mad beasts?

The Prophecy

But first let us review what the Holy Scriptures say of how the massacre of the innocents came about. From the Old Testament we know that God has promised a Messiah to save the people. But the Messiah took long in coming. The Israelites to whom that prophecy was announced had been waiting for years, nay centuries, for that long anticipated arrival. Where is the Messiah, the King of the Jews, to relieve them from their sufferings caused by the oppression from many foreigners through the centuries, from the Egyptians, to the Assyrians, to the Babylonians and to the Romans? Hope has long been dimming like a flickering light with its wick in its dying throes.

Then at the time when Israel was subject to Roman conquerors, and the appointed ruler was Herod, there was talk quietly buzzing around that the Messiah has arrived in the form of a baby born in Bethlehem. This unlikely rumor seemed to have been spread by some illiterate shepherds but it started to take substance when news of three wise men, known as seers and astrologers from the East, were seen making their way to Bethlehem. This piece of information reached Herod and if it was true, he will not take this lying down. He won’t lose the kingdom which he had worked so hard to establish. If there is now someone threatening to take his throne, then woe to that usurper.

Who was Herod?

In the book To Know Jesus Christ by F. Sheed, we are given a look at the background and personality of this awfully notorious king. The name Herod is from a Greek word meaning “descendant of heroes.” However, who those heroes were or what they had been heroic about, nobody seems to know. He was not even a Jew as the kings he succeeded had been. His father was from Idumea and his mother an Arab. By ancestry he was a nobody, a son and grandson of officials under the Hasmoean kings. His forbears were crafty men. How did he become king of Israel? Apparently, he was craftier than his ancestors. By pulling the right connections in Rome, most probably greased with bribe money, he became the ruler of the Jews.

Herod ruled Palestine as a tyrant. He loved being addressed as Herod the Great. But in Rome, he was only an attendant, a courtier at the palace of the emperor Augustus Caesar. Although he was nothing to the emperor, he held on to his position only because he is useful to the Romans and knows how to kowtow to them with his amusing ways and flattering speech. But the Jews feared him because he was a cruel king.

He was circumcised and tried externally to follow the religious practices in order not to upset the Jews. He built a Jewish temple in Jerusalem, but in other parts of Palestine, he built temples to pagan gods and even to Augustus. He did not actually believe in the Messiah but if the Jews think that the Messiah has arrived, any rumor about his coming could cause a strong religious and political frenzy.

The Three Wise Men

Three wise men, led by an unusually bright star, traveled a long way to Palestine to pay homage to the new-born Messiah. They brought with them precious gifts fit for a king - gold, frankincense and myrrh. Herod, upon learning of their arrival, summoned them to his palace before they reached their destination. In the pretext that he also wanted to pay homage to the Infant King, he asked them to inform him of the whereabouts of this baby on their way back to their home country.

However, the three wise men or Magi, also called the Three Kings, perhaps because of their kingly appearance and apparent wealth, did not return to Herod. In their sleep, an angel warned them of Herod’s sinister plot to kill the Holy Infant and told them to go back home through another route.

Ablaze with Anger

In a blazing rage upon realizing that the Magi tricked him, Herod decided to kill every male baby under two in Bethlehem. For him it was a foolproof way of the eliminating this new-born Messiah. Immediately, he instructed his soldiers to hurry to Bethlehem and carry out the massacre. Of course, he did not know that an angel had just appeared to Joseph giving him instructions to escape Herod’s evil designs.

And so as Herod’s soldiers were arriving at Bethlehem, the Holy Family was trekking the less frequented road in preference to the main road in order to make them as obscure as possible. It was an appalling journey. They had to pass through barren, uninhibited roads with water almost impossible to find. Before the Egyptian border was a vast dessert with no trees to shade them from the heat. But worse than the heat, thirst and tiredness was the terror of being caught by Herod’s soldiers.

The Bloody Slaughter

Anyone who would have witnessed the massacre of the innocent babies would be deeply traumatized for a long time, if not for life. One would hear the cries of the babies cut short by a thrust of the sword. The eerie wailing, the anguished pleas and the piercing cries of the parents, especially the mothers, may not have have registered to the deaf ears of Herod’s soldiers but will be heard reverberating in the streets of Bethlehem long after the carnage.

How were the babies killed? It is easy to surmise that they were slaughtered by the sword. That was the main weapon of soldiers at that time for there were no guns or rifles then. Killing with the sword would be by stabbing, hacking, beheading, or chopping. For this kind of death of innocent babies, even the heavens must have cried with bitter tears.

A Murderous Brute

Herod was unlikely to have regretted the massacre he ordered. For him, murder was a very effective means to get what he wanted. His past history has been inundated with murders. Upon his ascension to the throne, he had ordered the murder of fifty of the leading men in Palestine, including members of the Sanhedrin, the religious governing body of the Jews, who were perceived to be his enemies and a threat to his rule.

Even his own family was not spared. For what reasons he murdered his wife Mariamne and his two sons, and then later a third, we do not know. And if that was not enough, he also murdered his father-in-law, King Hyreanus and his mother-in-law, Alexandra. We cannot imagine what kind of a twisted brute he was – a man mired in gluttony, lust, greed, and murder. He was obsessed of clinging to his throne and establishing a dynasty, but how odd that he slew his own three eldest sons who were supposed to continue with his rule.

Killing innocent babies, perhaps about twenty of them in Bethlehem and maybe a dozen more in the outskirts of the town ( better to be sure that no one escaped) was to Herod a small event in his murderous history. These babies were nobodies and their death is a necessary step to assure him that no Messiah will take his place. Better to be sure than sorry.

A Horrible Death for a Horrible Man

A little more than a year after the massacre of the innocents, the horrible Herod himself died a horrible death. A Jewish historian Josephus described “his entrails became ulcerated, every muscle ached, his feet and belly swelled up and were covered with blood. He was like a putrefying corpse breeding worms.” 

A Glorious Meeting in Paradise

Three days after Christmas, on December 28, we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents as martyrs. The first thing that Jesus did while he was buried inside the sepulcher before resurrecting on the third day was to open the gates of heaven which has long been closed since the exile of Adam and Eve. He then descended to the dead to bring those worthy of eternal life to their everlasting reward in heaven.

And who do you think would be the first ones to enter the gates of Heavenly Paradise? It must have been the Holy Innocents! After all they were the first martyrs and no other can claim the glory of being the only ones who died in order to save the life of God.

It is easy to imagine what a glorious meeting it was between the saviors of God and the Savior of man. Jesus must have been hugging and kissing them while whispering his thanks to their ears. And the mothers? Surely, Jesus welcomed them with love and gratitude. The babies’ pain may have been cut short by the thrust of the sword while the pain of the mothers lasted much longer. But God has shown them that he is forever indebted to them as he has never been indebted to any for they were the only ones, babies and mothers, who agonized in order to save God’s life.

by Virginia Manzo, M.D.