The martyrs for the faith which the Church venerates are beyond number. These saints, who have received the palm of victory, gave witness in many different ways. Some who were in public positions, such as St. George, challenged the persecuting authorities and converted many others through their great courage. Bishops and other leaders of the church, such as St. Ignatius, turned their sacrifice into an opportunity for comforting and encouraging their flocks. Others, such as St. Alban, made split-second decisions to give up their earthly lives in order to protect another.
The most heart-rending of all the stories of martyrdom is that of the Holy Innocents, who were the first to give their lives for our Lord Jesus Christ. They forfeited lives barely begun and were martyred without conscious choice.
The basic story is given to us in St. Matthew’s Gospel: the three Wise Men, traveling from the East to meet a new king, whose birth they had seen predicted in the stars, did the logical thing and went first to the local ruler to ask for information. King Herod was so enraged at the idea of a rival king that he responded by having his soldiers kill all the male children two years old and under who were living in Bethlehem and the surrounding villages.
Centuries earlier, Hebrew mothers had also wept at the murder of their sons during the sojourn in Egypt when the baby Moses was spared so that he could lead his people out of Egypt toward the Promised Land. Now St. Joseph, the protector of the Theotokos and the Christ Child, was warned in a dream of Herod’s plans so he took them into Egypt in order to escape the bloodshed. This fulfilled the prophecy of Hosea: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” [Hos. 11:1]. The land of Egypt was thus blessed by the presence of the Savior.
St. Matthew draws a parallel between this massacre and the time of the Babylonian exile, quoting the Prophet Jeremiah: “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.” [Matt. 2:15] The editors of The Orthodox Study Bible tell us that the Jews being led into exile went past the tomb of Rachel and thought of her, crying out from the tomb for her people – her children’s children – as they gave up their lives and freedom. Rachel’s children are once again being slaughtered and One is being sent into exile. But, as before, this One will return and this time it will be to bring salvation to the world.
The Gospel story is supplemented by the record of historians such as Josephus, who give further proof of Herod’s insanity by telling of his murder of his wife, mother-in-law, sons and many others at his court. According to tradition, Herod also at this time had Zacharias murdered when he refused to hand over his son John, the herald of the Savior. Herod soon became ill with a horrible disease that infected his bowels and gave him sores, a disease which ended the violent life of this evil man.
The Church teaches us that “heaviness may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning” [Psalm 30:5]. We weep over tragedies, but we rejoice in how God can turn a tragedy into a triumph. These little ones were honored by the Church in its earliest days and in the 5th century, a formal feast day was established.
Fr. Thomas Hopko, in The Winter Pascha, says that “More than all others, the martyrs are the friends of Christ. In their sufferings, according to the daring words of Saint Paul, they ‘complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His body, that is the Church’ [Col. 1:24].”
St. Augustine preached: “Let earth rejoice with exceeding joy, for she is the fruitful mother of this great host of heavenly soldiers. The favor of vile Herod could never have done such service to these blessed ones as hath his hatred. For the Church testifieth by this holy solemnity, that whereas iniquity did specially abound against these little Saints, so much the more were heavenly blessings poured out upon them.”
In the words of Abbot Prosper Guéranger: “Blessed Babes! We celebrate your triumph, and we congratulate you in your having been chosen as the companions of Jesus when in his Crib. What a glad waking was yours, from the darkness of unconscious infancy to the precious light of Abraham’s bosom, where were congregated all the elect! What gratitude had you not for the God, who thus chose you, out of millions of other children, to do honor to the birth of his Son, by this sacrifice of your blood and lives! Too young to fight the battle, yet did you win the crown. Sweet Infant Martyrs! We give praise to our God for his having thus favored you, and, with the whole Church, we rejoice in the privileges you have received.”
Today, the Patriarch of Jerusalem still celebrates this feast (December 29 in the Eastern calendar) at the tomb where many of the relics of the Holy Innocents are buried in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Some of the relics were given to Rome and are in the Church of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls and some at St. Mary Major.
In our age, children are still being sacrificed by the evil powers of the world. In every holocaust which this world has endured, in cases of child abuse, in abortion, innocent little ones are suffering and dying. May the intercessions of those first Holy Innocents be with these new martyrs and may they prepare a place for them in Heaven.