Written by Rachel Kell, a Catholic wife, mother of four, and blogger at www.rachelkell.com
Like many of you, I try to follow the liturgical calendar—my Christmas tree isn’t cut until we’re moving through Advent, and it doesn’t come down until the Baptism of the Lord (though the lights may be permanently unplugged for fear of igniting among the dried pine needles). I leave the three Wise Men at a respectful distance from the manger until Epiphany, at which time we push the sheep of the nativity aside and make room for the trio to worship.
But despite the preparation, focus, and intention that I pour into Advent and Christmastide, December 28th has fallen into that sweet spot between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day where I just coast—holiday responsibilities have ended, messes have been cleaned, and anything requiring motivation might as well wait until the new year when I can slap a resolution on it and feel like I’m a whole new human.
But December 28th deserves more than that.
History of the Holy Innocents
On December 28th the Church recognizes the Feast of the Holy Innocents, remembering the infants whom Herod ordered to die in his pursuit of the Christ-child. In the Gospel of Matthew, we learn that “…an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” (Matthew 2:13) King Herod was not deterred when the Wise Men failed to return and betray Jesus, but instead “…he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.” (Matthew 2:16-17)
Art and tradition both depict this massacre as having hundreds or even thousands of victims, although the most compelling count comes from The Catholic Encyclopedia which notes that as a town of 300 total occupants, the number of infant boys aged two or under in Bethlehem would have been between six and twenty. These numbers are not too small to stun. What a juxtaposition to the Christmas celebration of Christ’s birth. What a heart-wrenching contrast to Mary’s “yes” as the mothers helplessly watch as their children are taken from them and murdered for resembling someone who would render mortal power inconsequential.
First Martyrs of the Church
The Holy Innocents are regarded as the first martyrs of the church. Though they did not choose the sacrifice, their deaths were offered in place of Jesus and are deserving of that most honorable title. Despite this, I can understand how the Feast of the Holy Innocents is for some a quieter part of the Christmas tradition. The atrocity of Herod ordering the murder of all infant boys aged two and under might be too horrific to comprehend as a child when so much of Christ’s birth story is being absorbed. Instead, we read with relief that the Wise Men and the Holy Family narrowly escaped Herod’s wrath, as God guided them through dreams and revelations. They were led to safety, and we are left with a comfortable depiction of Christ’s birth.
United to Christ
But Christmas is not about comfort, despite what the carols proclaim. Christmas is about the Incarnation, the uniting of God’s divine nature with human nature in Jesus Christ. And God does not become human without consequence. His mere presence on earth, even as a powerless babe, incited Herod to order that everyone who looked like Jesus or dwelled by Jesus be put to death. The closer you were to resembling the Christ-child, the closer you were to danger. The closer you lived to Jesus, the greater chance you had of losing your life.
It is not unlike Christianity today. While the directive might not be so clear and the consequences not (always) so dire, we dwell in a world where the Incarnation is real. The Incarnation is consequential. And if we find ourselves always comfortably celebrating His birth without experiencing the consequences of it, we might ask ourselves: How recognizable am I to the world that is searching for Him? Can those in need of Him find His presence in me? Do those incited by Him see me as a threat? Do I stay in the comfort of the manger, or do I run toward the consequences of loving Him?
Our Catholic tradition reminds us that the birth of Christ is not the end of a story, but a mere cliffhanger at the end of a chapter that begs you to keep reading. We do not end our Christmas season satisfied that “all is calm, all is bright”. We do not take down our trees and nativities on December 26th, because we would miss what comes next. While basking in the glow and gratitude that our Savior came to earth to be more like us, we come face to face with the Feast of the Holy Innocents and must ask: What would happen if we were more like Him?