Flunking Sainthood

Flunking Sainthood

The Yucky Underside of the Nativity: Or, What You Won’t See in Next Year’s Christmas Pageant

Giotto unforgettably portrays the slaughter of the baby boys

A friend of mine recently pointed out that tomorrow is the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Don’t know what that is? Neither did I. In a nutshell, it marks that icky, violent part of the nativity story that every Christmas pageant blithely ignores:


Herod perceiving that he was deluded by the wise men, was exceeding angry; and sending killed all the men children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the borders thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremias the prophet, saying: A voice in Rama was heard, lamentation and great mourning; Rachel bewailing her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not. (Matthew 2:16-18)

So who were these boys? And how many? One Catholic encyclopedia says that

The Greek Liturgy asserts that Herod killed 14,000 boys (ton hagion id chiliadon Nepion), the Syrians speak of 64,000, many medieval authors of 144,000, according to Apocalypse [Revelation] 14:3. Modern writers reduce the number considerably, since Bethlehem was a rather small town.


However many of these boys died, it’s funny how Protestants and other non-liturgical Christians tend to forget all about them. Some simply spiritualize the event as another one of Matthew’s stories that aims to show Jesus in the light of the Old Testament: here, he is the new Moses. Just as Pharaoh tried to murder every Hebrew baby boy but Moses survived (Exodus 1:22), Herod — a new Pharaoh — aims to murder every boy who might be a threat to him, but Jesus survives.

I have no doubt that this biblical interpretation is on to something, as Matthew is obsessed with showing Jesus as the fulfillment of various OT prophecies and archetypes. But isn’t it so very tidy? Asserting “This is just like that” is also a way of saying, “These were not real babies and toddlers. They were not people’s precious sons, just learning to walk and talk. The rest of the nativity story, with its humble shepherds and sweet Mary dressed in blue — that can stay. But we want this part safely omitted from our gospel. It makes us feel all itchy.”


So light a candle for these kids today, even if they were only half a dozen people. They were the first martyrs of the church, the first to give their lives for Jesus. It’s the least we can do to say thank you, even if we can’t figure out a way to put them in our Christmas pageants. Which kids would want those roles?



  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Glen Fullmer

    I can see the Christmas play now! Instead of one baby, we have 13, and wack off their heads, except one, of course. It would take a lot of dolls, and wouldn’t be G-rated! (of course a lot of the stuff in scripture is not G-rated) 😉

    Bible scholars say there is no historical record that this ever happened except in the Bible, and then only in the words of Matthew. If Herod did this, don’t you think that someone would have wrote about it at the time instead of 2-3 centuries later? Does that mean that Matthew exaggerated?

    However, when I light a candle I will think of babies sacrificed so Jesus would live. What goes around, comes around! 😉

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment daddost

    We always include this part of the story in our Christmas musical which is more than a pageant. The first time we did it, we had the soldiers leap off the stage and grab their own toddlers from the mothers in “Bethlehem.” With strobe lights flashing and kids screaming, it was powerful theatre! Of course, the audience was appalled. We never did that again, but the children must have recovered as a number of them played adult roles in this year’s production. Any way, it is a moving part of the Christmas story. It was neither the first time nor the last time that Satan used mass murder to try to destroy the Messiah.

  • Duck

    Thank you for this poignant reminder. I always feel sadness for the families who lost their little tykes to Herod’s henchmen. I have little nephews who fall in to that age group and it shreds me to think of them had they lived in that time frame.

    And, you are right- those little people killed were martyrs for the Savior. I never thought of that before.

    Love and respect, always. Your friend, Duck

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Joseph Smith taught that Zacharias the priest saved his wife Elizabeth and son John from Herod by sending them into the wilderness to hide, but Zacharias himself was killed. In the end, both Johnand Jesus joined the innocent children of Bethlehem in death at the hands of tyrants.

    If the children had lived to adulthood, they could have received baptism from John and become disciples if Jesus. Some denominations teach that they are lost for eternity, others that there is only hope that God provides for them in some way. But the Book of Mormon is explicit in teaching that “little children are alive in Christ” and will be saved if they die as such. For teaching this and other aspects of the broad saving power of Christ, the Mormons are condemned as being “not Christian.”

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