The Church, “expert in humanity” (as Pope Paul VI put it), knows that the mystery of Christmas (like that of Easter) is so great that it cannot be adequately plumbed – let alone celebrated – in a single day. And so, taking a page out of our Jewish liturgical heritage, the Church gives us an octave observance – eight full days to consider the central doctrine of the Incarnation, enabling us to reflect on it from a variety of perspectives, not unlike holding a diamond up to the sun in an attempt to appreciate its beauty from many different angles.
Oddly, it might seem, however, throughout the Christmas Octave, we encounter a number of saints’ feasts. Don’t these commemorations serve as distractions from the central mystery of the Octave on which we are meant to focus our attention? Not at all – because, as St. Paul teaches us, “God is glorious in His saints” (2 Thess 1:10). Indeed, we can say that the very first fruits of the Incarnation are saints, thecomites Christi (the companions of Christ), and in this week, the majority of them are martyrs – privileged “witnesses” to Christ: Stephen, the so-called “proto-martyr” (Dec. 27); Thomas à Becket, the medieval defender of the freedom of the Church (Dec. 29); and today, the Holy Innocents, really the first to shed their blood for Christ.
We are introduced to the “Holy Innocents” by St. Matthew (2:16-18) after he has told us of the visit of the Magi, whom Herod wanted to use as “reconnaissance” men to determine the identity of this “new-born King of the Jews.” Not obtaining the information he desired, Herod resorts to mass murder to ensure his competition is dead, ordering the execution of all male babies under the age of two in Bethlehem.
As children in our Bible history books in school and through Cecil B. DeMille-like productions, we were led to believe that hundreds or even thousands of baby boys were the victims of Herod’s treachery. Such poignant and dramatic scenes would certainly leave an impression on impressionable children. Unfortunately (or perhaps, fortunately), the real number was probably much smaller, maybe no more than a dozen since Bethlehem was a tiny, backwater town with a tiny population as Matthew himself suggests by citing the Prophet Micah’s description of the “little town of Bethlehem,” as we sing in the carol. No, the horror of Herod’s deed resides not in the number of infants killed but in the fact that even one would be killed. The historicity of the event gains considerable credibility since we know that the crazed and paranoid king even killed his own sons, so terrified was he of a usurper.
The Collect for the day’s liturgy notes that these little ones confessed the true faith, “not by speaking but by dying.” Indeed, the very word “infant” in Latin means one who cannot yet speak! The prayer goes on to ask the Lord for the great grace “that the faith in you which we confess with our lips we may also speak through the manner of our life.” Talking the talk must be matched by walking the walk. How can this feast help us do that?
Today’s Office of Readings treats us to a reflection of Quodvultdeus, a fifth-century bishop of Carthage in North Africa and a spiritual son of the great Augustine. His name means “what God wants.” The North Africans had a knack for names. Another bishop was called “Deogratias” (Thanks be to God), and Augustine named his illegitimate son “Adeodatus” (Given by God) – a reminder that all human life is sacred, even when conceived under less than optimal circumstances. These North African theologians stand as testimonies to the vitality of the Church in that region in the early centuries but a reality that was almost totally eradicated by the Muslim invasions of the seventh century, which brought death to many and, sadly, apostasy from not a few. Another reminder and warning: While the Church Universal has divine assurance of remaining until the end of time, particular churches (dioceses) do not.
But back to the contribution of Quodvultdeus. Using the literary device known as “apostrophe,” the author addresses a question to the absent Herod:Why are you afraid, Herod, when you hear of the birth of a king? He does not come to drive you out, but to conquer the devil. But because you do not understand this you are disturbed and in a rage, and to destroy one child whom you seek, you show your cruelty in the death of so many children.
Of course, for decades now, the Church in the United States has seen in the Holy Innocents the forerunners of the millions of babies slaughtered through legalized abortion in this country since 1973. As we have protested against this monstrosity and blight on our national character, have we not all witnessed the fear and rage of those ensnared in the culture of death? But why such rage? The vast majority of pro-lifers offer a kindly protest. The rage is born of insecurity, no doubt, because – deep-down – everyone knows the truth of what is happening in the abortion clinics and everyone knows – deep-down – that Our Lord was right in asserting that “the truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32). Dr. Bernard Nathanson came to the right conclusion, after years of aborting thousands of children, bringing him to produce the very appropriately-titled film,The Silent Scream.
The Church in our country – especially the hierarchy – have made numerous mistakes in the post-Vatican II era, however, the one area in which the Church shines is in her unrelenting pro-life witness and action. People forget that ours was a lone voice in the immediate wake of Roe v. Wade. In fact, the pro-abortionists used our solitary witness to press the anti-Catholic button, hoping to make the issue appear as a uniquely Catholic issue, as documented by Dr. Nathanson. While we rejoice in Evangelicals getting onboard with us, truth compels us to note that they were late arrivals.
This counter-cultural stance has been powerfully aided by our Catholic school system, which has provided strength and youthfulness to the pro-life movement. A few days after the 2010 March for Life in Washington, D. C., a journalist in favor of “abortion rights” wrote an article in theWashington Post (also strongly pro-abortion) noting that he was “expecting to write about [the March’s] irrelevance,” however, he indicated: “I was especially struck by the large number of young people among the tens of thousands at the march.” He highlighted the fact that the vast majority came from Catholic schools who “were taught from an early age to oppose abortion.” The piece ended up being remarkably fair and even positive.
The Shrine and Parish of the Holy Innocents (where I have happily provided assistance for more than a quarter of a century) in Midtown Manhattan is home to the Shrine of the Unborn. Quodvultdeus reproached Herod:You are not restrained by the love of weeping mothers or fathers mourning the deaths of their sons, nor by the cries and sobs of the children. You destroy those who are tiny in body because fear is destroying your heart. You imagine that if you accomplish your desire you can prolong your own life, though you are seeking to kill Life himself. This shrine allows parents to mourn the loss of their unborn children (whether through abortion or miscarriage), entering the names of their children into a Book of Life.
Europeans are stunned by the vitality of the pro-life movement in America; most of them have given up on the cause a long time ago. Abortion is still a lively and hotly contested dimension of American politics, as was on clear display in the shameful confirmation hearings of Judge Brett Kavanaugh. Most interesting of all is that young people, perhaps realizing that they themselves could have been aborted or impressed by what science tells us about life in the womb, are among the most pro-life of all. This past year has seen a bumper-crop of pro-life legislation across the country, with much more sure to follow if the Supreme Court moves in the direction most suppose will happen in theDobbs case.
The innocent unborn, then, have not died in vain. Quodvultdeus ends his homily thus:To what merits of their own do the children owe this kind of victory? They cannot speak, yet they bear witness to Christ. They cannot use their limbs to engage in battle, yet already they bear off the palm of victory.
Centuries later, Cardinal Newman would rhapsodize on our little saints, preaching on this feast in 1833 thus:
The longer we live in the world, and the further removed we are from the feelings and remembrances of childhood (and especially if removed from the sight of children), the more reason we have to recollect our Lord’s impressive action and word, when He called a little child unto Him, and set him in the midst of His disciples, and said, “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of Heaven. Whosoever, therefore, shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of Heaven.” And in order to remind us of this our Saviour’s judgment, the Church, like a careful teacher, calls us back year by year upon this day from the bustle and fever of the world. She takes advantage of the Massacre of the Innocents recorded in St. Matthew’s Gospel, to bring before us a truth which else we might think little of; to sober our wishes and hopes of this world, our high ambitious thoughts, or our anxious fears, jealousies, and cares, by the picture of the purity, peace, and contentment which are the characteristics of little children. (The Mind of Little Children, PPS 2:6)
All you Holy Innocents, although speechless in life, pray now that the witness of our lives will always match the words of our lips.
(Editor’s note: This essay is an expanded version of an essay that was first posted at CWR on December 28, 2018.)
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