Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.” King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this. … He sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, based on the wise men’s report of the star’s first appearance. [Matthew 2:1-3a,16b (NLT)]
Herod the king, in his raging, Charged he hath this day
His men of might in his own sight All young children to slay.
That woe is me, poor child, for thee And ever mourn and may
For thy parting neither say nor sing, “Bye bye, lully, lullay.”
[Coventry Carol (Robert Croo)]
Ruthless and paranoid, King Herod had killed three sons, several uncles and cousins, and one each of his wives, mothers-in-law, and brothers-in-law to protect his regime and keep his crown. When he was dying, desirous of having the Jews mourn rather than rejoice at his death, the heartless king hatched a diabolical plan to imprison all of the Jewish leaders and execute them upon his death. Having been crowned “King of the Jews” in 40 BC by the Roman Senate, it’s not likely a man like that would be willing to share his title with an infant. To safeguard his reign, the merciless king ordered the death of Bethlehem’s baby boys.
While there is no historical evidence of this slaughter, the story is plausible. It’s easy to believe that Herod, the Kim Jung-un of the ancient world, would order the death of innocent children. The early church grossly inflated the number killed by Herod’s men to thousands when, in actuality, Bethlehem’s population at the time was between 300 and 1,500. It’s estimated that only about fourteen to twenty-four of those were children under two, half of which were girls. Given all of Herod’s other evils, the death of a six to twelve baby boys in a time of high infant mortality wasn’t newsworthy.
The first Christian martyr wasn’t Jesus on Calvary or even the sainted Stephen; it was some nameless baby boy in Bethlehem. Those babies may have gone unnoticed by ancient historians but they had names to their mothers and their loss was noticed by all who knew them. Having only sung the first two verses of “Coventry Carol,” I hadn’t realized that, rather than Mary’s lullaby, it is a mother’s lament for her doomed child.
Around 485 AD, Herod’s massacre was commemorated in a feast day called “Holy Innocents” or “Childermas.” Recalling this slaughter and picturing mothers desperately trying to save their boys is the dark side of Christmas. Today, several churches celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents by remembering the preciousness of children. As we recall Herod’s victims and thank God for the children with which we have been blessed, let us also remember the holy innocents of the twenty-first century: refugees, the homeless, hungry, and disenfranchised; the elderly, mentally ill, sick, and isolated; casualties of war, the victimized, poverty-stricken, and vulnerable. They are all God’s precious children. How can we protect them from the Herods of today?
We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen [Collect for Holy Innocents from the Book of Common Prayer]