Let us adore the new-born Christ: today he has given the Holy Innocents the martyrs’ crown.
Year: A(I). Psalm week: 1. Liturgical Colour: Red.
The Holy Innocents, Martyrs
The Holy Innocents are the children who were slaughtered at the orders of King Herod, in the hope that by killing every boy born in Bethlehem at the same time as Jesus, he would succeed in killing the new-born King of the Jews.
There was nothing about those baby boys that made them deserve death. Look at any one of them, and you can see that he had no chance to do anything, or be anyone, or become anyone. He had done nothing. He had done nothing bad, he had done nothing good. He was born, and then he died, and that was all there was to him. So passive are these babies that some people find it hard to understand how they can share the title of “martyr” with people like St Stephen (the day before yesterday), who insisted on preaching the truth until his hearers stoned him for it, or St Thomas Becket (tomorrow), who insisted on living the truth until his king had him killed because of it. These children did not insist on anything except their mothers’ milk; and unlike Stephen and Thomas, there was no voluntary act of theirs that we can see as making the difference between being martyred and not being martyred.
So in our rational human terms these children are a puzzle, and that is one reason why God has inspired the Church to celebrate this very feast – to show us how inadequate our seemingly rational, worldly-wise thoughts are. As he reminds us again and again throughout salvation history, his thoughts are not our thoughts. Babies may not rank high on the scale as far as our human calculus is concerned; but then neither do sparrows, and yet God has told us that God sees and counts every one of those.
The Holy Innocents can stand, therefore, for the “unimportant” and “unnecessary” pawns, child and adult alike, that permeate the whole of human history, the ones who can be sacrificed for some greater cause because they “don’t really matter”; the eggs that were broken to make an omelette... or even broken to make nothing at all. There are plenty of them, one way or another. The feast of the Holy Innocents reminds us that in God’s eyes (that is, according to the true value of things), no-one is unimportant, no-one is unnecessary, no-one “doesn’t really matter.” However meaningless their lives and deaths may seem to us, they shine glorious in heaven.
On a more personal level, the honour given to the Holy Innocents reminds us that if we suffer or even die for God’s sake, it has value even if we have little or no say in it ourselves. Honouring them effectively honours also the martyrdom of the people these children could have become, and their children’s children as well; and at the same time we can remember the contemporary and continuing massacre of those who die before birth for the convenience of those who have them killed.
About the author of the Second Reading in today's Office of Readings:
Second Reading: Saint Quodvultdeus (-454)
Little is known about the early life of Quodvultdeus. Of Berber origins, he was born in Africa, probably at Carthage, towards the end of the fourth century. His name means “What God wills”. He was ordained deacon by St Augustine, who later wrote a work against heresies at his request and dedicated it to him [though one German scholar claims that this “deacon Quodvultdeus” was a different person of the same name].
Quodvultdeus became bishop of Carthage in 435. He severely criticized Christians who were more interested in attending the circus than in being inspired by the example of the saints and martyrs, and attributed the calamities that befell his province to the wrath of God.
When Carthage fell to the Vandal king Genseric in 439, Quodvultdeus refused to renounce his faith and become an Arian like the king. Together with the clergy who were faithful to him, he was cast adrift on a disused ship without oars or sails. Providentially, they reached Naples, where Quodvultdeus spent the rest of his life. He wrote “The Book of the Promises and Prophecies of God”, and took part in the fight against Pelagianism. He died at Naples in 454 and is buried in the Catacombs of St Januarius at Capodimonte.
The “Sermon on the Creed”, from which an extract is used on the feast of the Holy Innocents, was formerly attributed to St Augustine.
Liturgical colour: red
Red is the colour of fire and of blood. Liturgically, it is used to celebrate the fire of the Holy Spirit (for instance, at Pentecost) and the blood of the martyrs.
|Mid-morning reading (Terce)||(Lamentations 1:16) ©|
I weep and my eyes dissolve in tears, since the comforter who could revive me is far away. My sons are in despair, the enemy has proved too strong.
|Noon reading (Sext)||(Lamentations 2:11) ©|
My eyes wasted away with weeping, my entrails shuddered, as children, mere infants, fainted in the squares of the Citadel.
|Afternoon reading (None)||Jeremiah 31:16,17 ©|
Stop your weeping, dry your eyes, your hardships will be redressed. There is hope for your descendants, says the Lord.