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?



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