THE HOLY INNOCENTS
SAY, ye celestial guards, who wait
In Bethlehem, round the Saviour’s palace gate,
Say, who are these on golden wings,
That hover o’er the new-born King of kings,
Their palms and garlands telling plain
That they are of the glorious martyr-train,
Next to yourselves ordain’d to praise
His Name, and brighten as on Him they gaze?
But where their spoils and trophies? where
The glorious dint a martyr’s shield should bear?
How chance no cheek among them wears
The deep-worn trace of penitential tears,
But all is bright and smiling love,
As if, fresh-borne from Eden’s happy grove,
They had flown here, their King to see,
Nor ever had been heirs of dark mortality?
Ask, and some angel will reply,
“These, like yourselves, were born to sin and die,
But ere the poison root was grown,
God set His seal, and mark’d them for His own.
Baptiz’d in blood for Jesus’ sake,
Now underneath the Cross their bed they make,
Not to be scar’d from that sure rest
By frighten’d mother’s shriek, or warrior’s waving crest.”
Mindful of these, the first-fruits sweet
Borne by the suffering Church her Lord to greet;
Bless’d Jesus ever lov’d to trace
The “innocent brightness” of an infant’s face.
He rais’d them in His holy arms,
He bless’d them from the world and all its harms:
Heirs though they were of sin and shame,
He bless’d them in His own and in His Father’s Name.
Then, as each fond unconscious child
On th’ everlasting Parent sweetly smil’d,
(Like infants sporting on the shore,
That tremble not at Ocean’s boundless roar,)
Were they not present to Thy thought,
All souls, that in their cradles Thou hast bought?
But chiefly these, who died for Thee,
That Thou might’st live for them a sadder death to see.
And next to these, Thy gracious word
Was as a pledge of benediction, stor’d
For Christian mothers, while they moan
Their treasur’d hopes, just born, baptiz’d, and gone.
Oh, joy for Rachel’s broken heart!
She and her babes shall meet no more to part;
So dear to Christ her pious haste
To trust them in His arms for ever safe embrac’d.
She dares not grudge to leave them there,
Where to behold them was her heart’s first prayer;
She dares not grieve—but she must weep,
As her pale placid martyr sinks to sleep,
Teaching so well and silently
How, at the shepherd’s call, the lamb should die:
How happier far than life the end
Of souls that infant-like beneath their burthen bend.
December 28th is set aside as Holy Innocents’ Day. It is a solemn remembrance of Herod’s slaughter of all male children aged two years and younger whose families resided in greater Bethlehem. Herod’s horrific act was the result of his anger at having been deceived by the Magi. It was consistent with his character. Herod was king of Israel, but unlike Jesus, he attained the throne by murder and treachery. Jesus, as he knew, was “born king.”
This holocaust of innocents at the alter of inconvenience is almost incomprehensible to modern sensibilities, yet it is far from ancient. We have grown accustomed to the nightly news of atrocities in war-torn countries, and genocide has touched every generation. We also grimly acknowledge the normalcy with which abortion is now considered.
Today, especially, stop and pray for the innocent and ask God to make us instruments of peace.
Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: “A voice was heard in Ramah, Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, Refusing to be comforted, Because they are no more.
Art: Massacre of the Innocents, by Peter Paul Rubens (1637)
Literature: John Keble, The Christian Year, Lyra Innocentium and Other Poems (London; Edinburgh; Glasgow; New York; Toronto; Melbourne; Bombay: Humphrey Milford; Oxford University Press, 1914), 20–21.
Anthony Hecht’s “It Out-Herod’s Herod: I pray you avoid it” is a “Childermas” poem for his children written after the Holocaust, and reflects rather on his own impotence to protect them from another such time of slaughter as that and Herod’s tyranny bring to mind. And Margaret Avison, in “Waking and Sleeping: Christmas,” reaching for ways to relate the inevitable juxtaposition of New Birth and Death (cf. T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi”), appeals to an older paralleling of biblical stories:
But hard on the manger vigil
came Herod’s massacre—like
the Pharaoh’s once—and Rachel’s
heart then broke.
David L. Jeffrey, A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1992).