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Why do we celebrate a Feast of the Holy Innocents?

The Feast of the Holy Innocents, or Childermas in Old English, commemorates the death of the male children in Bethlehem who were 2 years of age or under. King Herod the Great had ordered this, in order to ensure that the infant Messiah sought by the Magi would be unable to displace him on his throne. This is why Saint Joseph was told in a dream to take the Child and the Blessed Virgin and flee to Egypt to escape the persecution of King Herod. On this day we are reminded, as well, that all lives are precious, and it is our responsibility to protect every life from the moment of conception to natural death. Pope Francis stated in his 2016 address for the Feast of the Holy Innocents: Christmas is … accompanied, whether we like it or not, by tears. The Evangelists did not disguise reality to make it more credible or attractive. They did not indulge in words that were comforting but unrelated to reality. (continued below)


Why do we celebrate a Feast of the Holy Innocents? (continued from above)

For them, Christmas was not a flight to fantasy, a way of hiding from the challenges and injustices of their day. On the contrary, they relate the birth of the Son of God as an event fraught with tragedy and grief. Quoting the prophet Jeremiah, Matthew presents it in the bluntest of terms: “A voice is heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children” (2:18). It is the sobbing of mothers bewailing the death of their children in the face of Herod’s tyranny and unbridled thirst for power.

Today too, we hear this heart-rending cry of pain, which we neither desire nor are able to ignore or to silence. In our world – I write this with a heavy heart – we continue to hear the lamentation of so many mothers, of so many families, for the death of their children, their innocent children. (Letter of His Holiness Pope Francis to Bishops on the Feast of the Holy Innocents) The Feast of the Holy Innocents is celebrated on December 28.

What is the meaning of the “Holy Innocents”?

The young boys killed by Herod were innocent of any crime, except the imagined crime of being potential usurpers of Herod’s throne. They are acknowledged as “holy” by the Church because of the holy circumstances of their death. They died in hatred of Christ, as martyrs do, and thus the liturgical color of the day is red.

What does Childermas mean? Like the term Christmas for the celebration of the birth of the Savior, Michaelmas for the feast of the Archangel, Childermas refers to the celebration of the Holy Children of Bethlehem. In the Church the highest form of celebration is always a Holy Mass, and thus Mas(s) was appended in Old English to the feast’s name.

“Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’” - Matthew 2:13

Who was king when Jesus was born?

King Herod the Great was the Roman client king of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth. Although he was raised as a Jew he was an Idumean, of a family whose friendship with Julius Caesar and his successors brought them roles in the Roman governance of the region, Herod in Judea, his brother Philip in Syria.

Why is Herod called “the Great”?

King Herod was titled “the Great” due in part to his many building projects throughout Judea, such as the Great Temple in Jerusalem, and his establishment of the Herodian dynasty. This doesn’t indicate anything about his personal greatness. In fact, he was a divisive and cruel ruler.

Was Herod the Great a pagan?

No, he was not a member of a pagan religion. In fact, he was raised a Jew from childhood. Despite his patronage of the Jewish religion, he was held in contempt for his service of the Romans. Thus, he sought to punish those who opposed him, using divisive tactics to keep his mostly Jewish subjects in line.

“Christian joy is born from a call – the same call that Saint Joseph received – to embrace and protect human life, especially that of the holy innocents of our own day.” - Pope Francis, address on the Feast Day of the Holy Innocents, 2016

Did the Holy Innocents have a Baptism of Blood?

While the Church has long recognized the sanctity of the Innocents it has never formally taught any specific explanation. The New Covenant with its moral obligation of baptism, and its certainty of grace, had not yet been promulgated when they died. Thus, there can be, at best, an analogy to baptism of any kind, including baptism of blood. However, as St. Thomas Aquinas explains of the Old Covenant, while the sacraments of the Old Law did not impart grace by themselves, God granted it to those who obeyed and believed Him by keeping His covenant. In this way the rites of the Old Law justified in view of the Messiah, and in Circumcision’s case, in view of His Passion (St. Thomas, S.T. III, q70, a4). It is likely, therefore, that all, or most, of these infant boys were already just and added the crown of martyrdom to that glory. And if in some cases those rites had not yet been performed, how much more ought we to believe that having died out of hatred for Christ, those few should receive justice from God.

“A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are not.” - Jeremiah 31:15