Holy Innocents: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
Today is the day in the Church calendar when we remember those whom we call the Holy Innocents. We all know the story from the Gospel of Matthew. The Magi, following their guiding star arrive in Jerusalem seeking the place where Christ was born. “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod heard of their inquiries, he summoned the priests and teachers of the law and discovered that the prophecies pointed to Bethlehem as the likely location of the birth. He had the Magi brought to him, discovered when the star appeared, and sent them on their way to Bethlehem saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” The account continues with the Magi finding Christ, now a “young child”, presenting their gifts and, being warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they made their way back to their home countries by another way. Joseph was also warned by an angel in a dream to take his family to Egypt, “for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” The story concludes with an angry Herod, feeling deceived by the Magi, issuing orders “to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.”
Many historians, for a variety of reasons doubt the veracity of this account. There is no historical corroboration or documentary evidence that this massacre took place. On the other hand, we might remember that Bethlehem was only slightly more than a small village and, according to some scholars, may have only contained a dozen or so male infants of the right age. Given Herod’s reputation for more public acts of ruthlessness and cruelty, it is entirely possible that an incident of this sort may have escaped the attention of the chroniclers of the time. Nevertheless, for those of us who have a high view of scripture, we are compelled to give the story serious consideration.
At its heart, this story is about the exercise of power. There is the exercise of power by which a guiding star is placed in the heavens that calls the Magi to follow and ultimately to worship the child that they find in Bethlehem. There is an exercise of power in preserving the life of the child by warning Joseph and the Magi, allowing all to make their escape. There is also, however, another sort of power that is shown… and it is malevolent.
Throughout the history of the Church, Herod has exemplified what it means to be a “wicked ruler” owing to his willingness to retain power regardless of the cost in human lives. For Herod, the deaths of a dozen children in a provincial village appears to have meant little or nothing in comparison to maintaining his position and power. It was simply of no consequence. For a man who had his own son executed, it is hard to imagine that the deaths of strangers would have troubled his conscience. Yet it is this act of callous indifference that scripture records.
During this last year, we have endured political campaigns and an election, while all around us a pandemic has swept the globe and our own country. Now we are debating the “peaceful transfer of power” as though it is an end, in and of itself. I think it does matter. What matters more, however, are the hundreds of thousand lives that we have lost… and the indifference of some to that loss… even to the point of denial. When I think of those lost lives, another part of this narrative becomes real. It is not the star, or the Magi, or even Herod. It is the mourning for those who have died.
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”