The day after Christmas Day is the feast of St Stephen, the first Christian martyr, reminding us that following Jesus has meant sacrifice and pain for many. Today, however, contrasts even more with the joy of Christmas, for we are confronted with the blood flowing in the streets of Bethlehem as all the boys under two years of age were slaughtered by order of Herod the Great, the Governor of Galilee. History tells us that he was an extremely cruel man in a cruel age. In fact, he killed a number of his wives and sons when he thought they were plotting against him. Every challenge to his power was met with a swift and final response. Threatened by the birth of a king prophesied in the Jewish scriptures, Herod - enraged by the “betrayal” of the Magi - ordered the killing of all the baby boys in Bethlehem two years of age and younger. (As Bethlehem was a small town, it is often thought that there would have been about 25 of them.)
Christians have always considered these baby boys to be martyrs. Today we are reminded of just how routine martyrdom has been in different periods of Church history, and also how many of our brothers and sisters in Christ in the trouble-spots of the world face the very real prospect of martyrdom today. May the lives WE live, the choices WE make, as well as the outward behaviour of our Churches in relation to the values of the world, not betray all those who have given their lives as martyrs for the Gospel and the Faith once delivered to the Saints.
O God, whom the Holy Innocents confessed
and proclaimed on this day,
not by speaking but by dying,
grant, we pray,
that the faith in you which we confess with our lips
may also speak through our manner of life.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Today's Collect)
Here is a meditation on today’s commemoration by scientist/ priest John Polkinghorne, from his book Living with Hope: a Scientist Looks at Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.
HOLY INNOCENTS: THE BITTERNESS OF SUFFERING
Three days after the joyous Feast of Christmas comes the sad remembrance of the Holy Innocents, the children slaughtered at the command of the ruthless King Herod as he sought to protect himself from any threat to the tenure of his throne. If Jesus had not been born, and if the magi had not called in at Jerusalem in the course of their search for him, naively enquiring where the new King of the Jews had been born, those children would have lived on into adult life. The adoration of the magi and the slaughter of the innocents are opposite sides of the same coin. Those mothers weeping in Bethlehem are the shadow side of the Christmas story.
Holy Innocents Day sets before us, with peculiar intensity and sharpness, the strange character of this present world, with its mixture of joy and sorrow, promise and pain. We are glad indeed that the Christ child was born, but why did it have to be at the cost of the deaths of his tiny contemporaries? Why did God not intervene to stop the massacre of the innocents? Come to that, why did God not intervene to stop Auschwitz? One of the saddest sights of that terrible place is a room where the Nazi guards piled up shoes taken from those who were about to enter the gas chambers. Thousands of pairs are stacked there, each one representing some person whose life was untimely destroyed. Many of those shoes are children’s shoes.
Before the mystery of suffering we necessarily fall silent. We can understand that God has given humans free will and that this means that it can be, and it is, exercised in ways that are totally contrary to the divine purpose. But the bitterness of suffering is too great to be assuaged by logical arguments of this kind, true though they are in their own way. If there is to be a theological response to the problem of suffering, it has to lie much deeper than that. I believe that the Christian response does indeed lie very deep, for it speaks of a God who is not simply a compassionate spectator of the travail of creation but One who, in the cross of Christ, has actually, participated in that suffering. God is truly a fellow sufferer with creation, for the Christian God is the crucified God. The life of the baby Jesus was saved by the flight into Egypt, but there was a cup waiting, prepared for him to drink, and when the time came, he drained it to the dregs.
God of love, whose compassion never fails; we bring before thee the troubles and perils of peoples and nations, the sighing of prisoners and captives, the sorrows of the bereaved. the necessities of strangers, the helplessness of the weak, the despondency of the weary, the failing powers of the aged. 0 Lord, draw near to each; for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.
And here, from today’s Office of Readings, is part of a sermon preached by St Quodvultdeus (died c. 450) a bishop of Carthage who had been taught by St Augustine of Hippo, and to whom St Augustine dedicated some of his writings. Quodvultdeus knew what it was to suffer for the Lord. He was exiled when Carthage was captured by the Arians. He and the bulk of his priests were loaded onto leaky, unseaworthy ships, and taken to Naples in Italy (c. 439), from where he then exercised a ministry of teaching and spiritual direction.
EVEN BEFORE THEY LEARN TO SPEAK, THEY PROCLAIM CHRIST
A tiny child is born, who is a great king. Wise men are led to him from afar. They come to adore one who lies in a manger and yet reigns in heaven and on earth. When they tell of one who is born a king, Herod is disturbed. To save his kingdom he resolves to kill him, though if he would have faith in the child, he himself would reign in peace in this life and for ever in the life to come.
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.
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.
Yet your throne is threatened by the source of grace, so small, yet so great, who is lying in the manger. He is using you, all unaware of it, to work out his own purposes freeing souls from captivity to the devil. He has taken up the sons of the enemy into the ranks of God’s adopted children.
The children die for Christ, though they do not know it. The parents mourn for the death of martyrs. The child makes of those as yet unable to speak fit witnesses to himself. See the kind of kingdom that is his, coming as he did in order to be this kind of king. See how the deliverer is already working deliverance, the saviour already working salvation.
But you, Herod, do not know this and are disturbed and furious. While you vent your fury against the child, you are already paying him homage, and do not know it.
How great a gift of grace is here! 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.