The Feast of the Holy Innocents, also called Childermas or Innocents’ Day is a feast day in remembrance of the massacre of young children in Bethlehem by King Herod in his attempt to kill baby Jesus.
The attempt is referenced in Matthew 2:16-18 where it’s written, “When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled…” The day is often observed on December 28 in Western churches and December 29 in Eastern churches.
To understand the feast day, it’s important to know King Herod’s background and why he feared Jesus.
King Herod, or Herod the Great as he liked to be called, was a jealous king, placed in power by the Roman Empire. Like most kings he wanted more power, not less power. Then, out of the east come these wise men (or scholars) on camels bearing fancy gifts, asking one question: where could they find the newly born king of the Jews? They added “We have seen His star in the east and have come to worship Him” (Matthew 2:2). They didn’t come all this way to see King Herod but another king. Can you imagine what he was thinking? Another king? Here? Where I rule? Jesus represented a new kingdom, and His coming, though misunderstood, represented a threat to other powers, by the kings like Herod, or spiritual authorities like the Pharisees, and teachers of the law later in the gospel. You may wonder kind of difference a tiny baby could have made to someone as powerful as Herod was: a whole lot.
When word reached Herod that the wise men were looking for this new king, he sent for them and urged them to find the child so he could worship him too. But Herod was lying. His real goal was to destroy the child, fearing illogically that in time, Jesus would take over his throne. Historians tell us that Herod was a cruel, power-hungry ruler who destroyed anyone who he feared was threatening his power by trying to topple him from his throne. He even went as far as killing members of his own family because he thought they were plotting against him. God warned the wise men of Herod’s plot in a dream, so they found Jesus and gave him gifts and did not return to Herod. After Herod realized they had evaded him, he ordered the death of every child in Bethlehem below the age of two. It wasn’t just jealousy that Herod was experiencing as he ordered the massacre of hundreds of babies, it was fear. Fear of losing what was most important to him: power.
Another important thing to note is his status as ruler. Herod knew his status as ruler was tenuous. He gained and maintained his power by brute force and manipulation. He had little support from the common people around Jerusalem. Discontent with his rule was so high that a small spark could create a firestorm of revolution. Herod lived in constant fear – no matter how many enemies he tortured or executed; he knew their numbers would continue to grow. That’s why Herod was so furious to learn the wise men had tricked him. He was so furious that, “He sent for and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under” (Matthew 2:16). This was only the latest of his extraordinary acts of brutality. Earlier, he had his two eldest sons murdered because he feared they were plotting against him.
The tragic story is the introduction to the entire story of Jesus. Jesus exposed the violence of power politics. He exposed the violence that lies all too close to the hearts of all of us. He goes on to show us that God’s merciful kingdom is available to all of us right now to break spiritual violence.
The story of Jesus is about the presence of God’s healing mercy in human history. This mercy enters a world of conflict. It is because we have so much conflict that we so desperately need God’s mercy. Jesus, even at His birth, exposes the violence of Herod. Alongside Jesus’ birth story , the joyful song of God with us comes another song, a terrible song: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more” (Matthew 2:18). Such lamentations have too often been a part of human history before and since Jesus’ birth. Jesus’ birth though, signals a new hope that Herod’s violence would be overcome.
Jesus and Herod represented two very different types of kings. The tidings of Jesus’ birth are tidings of a new expression of God’s abundant mercy and healing. King Jesus taught that abundance means rejecting dividing people into insiders and outsiders or limiting God’s mercy and love. God’s kingdom is or all people. Jesus ate with tax collectors and other “sinners,” forgave the woman caught in adultery and promised paradise to the criminal on the cross next to Him. Jesus received all who wanted to come.
Jesus was a genuine threat to Herod, to the religious leaders and to the Roman Empire. He approached life with an entirely different script from that of scarcity and fearfulness. Jesus wrote a revolutionary script of trust, acceptance, openness and mercy. Anyone who genuinely hears Jesus’ word will no longer find it possible to accept Herod’s definition of reality but will give homage to an altogether different kind of king: the peaceable king, Jesus.
The primary reason the religious feast is observed is to honor the children who died and the grieving mothers. These slain children were regarded in the early church as the first martyrs and it eventually became a saint’s day. This is also a day to reflect on the power of evil and fear. Herod wasn’t the last to try and destroy Christ and His own people; even in our own day, evil men and women rise up against God’s work. But God’s Word is true. “I will build my church, and the gates of hell should not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). Someday, Christ will come again to judge all evil, and Satan’s defeat will be complete.