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 about would-be usurpers to his throne, King Herod killed three of his 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. 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 destined to be king. 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/Joseph Stalin/Mao Zedong of the ancient world, would order the death of innocent children. When he was dying, the heartless king hatched a diabolical plan to gather all of the Jewish leaders and execute them upon his death. By doing this, he guaranteed that, instead of people rejoicing at his death, the entire nation would mourn. It was during the time of his illness that he ordered the slaughter of the infant boys of Bethlehem.

Perhaps, because the early church grossly inflated the number killed by Herod’s men to between 14,000 and 144,000, historians question its historicity. In actuality, Bethlehem’s population at the time was somewhere between 300 and 1,500 so there probably would have been no more than 20 boys under the age of two. While the death of even one child is a tragedy, the deaths of 20 babies in a time of high infant mortality probably 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.  St. Augustine called these murdered children the “flowers of the martyrs” and “the first buds of the Church killed by the frost of persecution,” while pointing out that “they died not only for Christ but in His stead.” Those innocent children may have gone unnoticed by ancient historians but they had names and 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 a simple lullaby, it is a mother’s lament for her doomed child.

Recalling this slaughter and picturing mothers desperately trying to save their boys is the dark side of Christmas. Around 485 AD, Herod’s massacre was commemorated in a feast day called “Holy Innocents” or “Childermas.” 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. Not just children, they are the refugees and homeless, the hungry and disenfranchised, as well as the elderly, mentally ill, sick, and isolated. Today’s holy innocents are the victimized, poverty-stricken, vulnerable, and casualties of war. They all are 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]

Herod’s brutal action fulfilled what God had spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A cry was heard in Ramah—weeping and great mourning. Rachel weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted, for they are dead.” [Matthew 2:17-18 (NLT)]

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