Herod was furious when he realised that he had been outwitted by the wise men, and in Bethlehem and its surrounding district he had all the male children killed who were two years old or under, reckoning by the date he had been careful to ask the wise men. It was then that the words spoken through the prophet Jeremiah were fulfilled:I've spent this morning in a mostly meditative mood because of today's feast. It seems to pose a lot of tough questions when we look at the overall picture. Certainly the Church venerates them as martyrs and for that reason we celebrate their entry into eternal glory, but I wonder whether we have the courage to face the awful reality that their martyrdom represents.
A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loudly lamenting:
it was Rachel weeping for her children,
refusing to be comforted because they were no more.
One might consider their birth into eternal life as being an example of predestination and wholly unmerited grace. These infants had done nothing in their lives to deserve the honour of martyrdom; they did not preach the Good News, they knew nothing of Christ, but in utter passivity they were baptised in their own blood as they died due to Herod's hatred and fear of the Infant Christ.
We see in their slaughter the fact that to those He has predestined for eternal life, God gives the means for salvation. But what means we see in the deaths of the Holy Innocents! If I might push the baptism imagery a little further, one might ask whether Herod's solders were the ministers of this Baptism, whether their sword thrusts were the form and the blood of the infants was the matter of this gruesome sacrament. I'm sure you can see how this is disturbing. To what extent can we describe the massacre of the Holy Innocents as being part of God's plan?
Consider the sorrow of their parents. It would have seemed to them fantastical, absurd and grotesque to argue that there was anything good about the deaths of their little ones. They would have seen simply the brutality of Herod and wept for their slain babies. However, we realise that these children have entered into Heavenly Glory with the unique dignity of having been slain in place of Christ.
I'm not sure what conclusions we should draw from all this. I think, however, that the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents should remind us that we should be very humble when we try to speak of providence, God's plan for us, and His ability to bring good out of the evil which surrounds us. We should be very careful about speaking too definitively about how we see or don't see God's hand at work in the world.