One of the most disturbing stories in the Bible comes to us during the Octave of Christmas. Jesus is born in Bethlehem during the reign of Herod the Great. He is not a legitimate heir to the Jewish throne; he’s not even fully Jewish. He has been placed on the throne by the Roman emperor as payback for his support of Rome. And with all that he is very possessive of his throne and will do anything to keep himself in power, including killing his favorite wife and his son, his heir apparent.
So when magi come from the east and ask about the newborn King of the Jews, Herod and all his palace are obviously upset. Herod will do anything to wipe out this rival to his power. A little palace intrigue has him declaring his desire to pay homage to the infant king and asking the magi to report back to him so he can do just that. Whether they were wise to Herod before or totally relied on the dream from God, they didn’t return to Herod, so Herod had to take drastic measures. Drastic for us, but not for him, it actually fit right into his “modus operandi.” He ordered all male children in Bethlehem under the age of two to be slaughtered, determining the age of the new king by when the magi saw the star announcing his birth.
“When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi, he became furious. He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi” (Matthew 2:16 NABRE).
The work of art by Leon Cogniet depicted above captures the agony of one mother who will surely lose her son to Herod’s marauding henchmen. It’s hard to say how many baby boys lost their lives, but many place the number around 20 based on the size of Bethlehem at that time. For each son and his family this was a tragic loss. Down through history these baby boys have been considered martyrs for the cause of Christ. Today’s collect in the Mass has us praying this way:
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.
The plan to exterminate the Christ Child was bigger than something hatched up by Herod. It was a diabolical plan from the pits of hell to squash the eternal plan of salvation by taking out the One who was born to be Savior. Jesus found refuge in Egypt and at the appointed time willingly gave His life for our redemption. Thanks be to God!