In many ways, the Christmas story is ideally suited for a Disney movie: shepherds watching their flocks at night, three Wise Men from the east guided by a star; a helpless infant in a stable. Yet there is one part of the story that is too grisly for Disney--the attempt of Herod the Great, described in a short but chilling passage in the Gospel of Matthew, to protect his earthly power from the threat posed by the newborn king. To this end, Herod murdered all Bethlehem boys two years of age and under.
The number of child-victims was long disputed, with estimates ranging from 14,000 (the early Greek church) to 144,000 (cited by many medieval authors). Such figures are obvious fabrications: most modern authorities place the number at between six and twenty-five. There is also uncertainty about the perpetrator. Herod the Great is now believed to have died four years before the birth of Christ. Yet these issues aside, there is no doubt that some children were murdered or that this event, linked by the Gospel writer to the birth of Jesus, made a profound impression on early Christianity.
By the fourth century the Holy Innocents, as they were called by the Roman church, were regarded as martyrs, their feast being celebrated in the Latin tradition on December 28. The cult of the Innocents, fashioned in part by St. Augustine, spread quickly and widely. In England (where their feast was called Childermas), the Venerable Bede composed a hymn in their honour, and in medieval Europe there was a tradition of a boy bishop officiating on their feast day.
Along the way, history was enriched. The fifth-century writer Macrobius related that when news of the murders reached Rome, Caesar Augustus, mistakenly believing that Herod's son Antipater (executed at about the same time) was among the victims, remarked, in a snide reference to Jewish dietary laws, "It is better to be Herod's hog than his son." Other tales concerned Herod. In his eighteenth-century classic Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and other Principal Saints, Alban Butler recounted that Herod survived the murdered children only by a few days, and that on his deathbed his body was ravaged by a swelling cyst that "gnawed and consumed his bowels" before erupting into a "sordid ulcer, out of which worms ushered in swarms."
In addition to a lively historical narrative, the Holy Innocents acquired theological importance. Butler summed up the teaching of the church when he wrote that it was the "peculiar glory" of the children "not only to die for the sake of Christ, and for justice and virtue, but also in the place of Christ, or in his stead." In making their sacrifice, Butler asserted, the children gained eternal life, and, according to the church, the same is true of all who die in a state of innocence.
Historically, the reasons for the Innocents' appeal to the Christian imagination are complex. One reason obviously had to do with Herod himself who, it was thought, had been led by sheer ruthlessness to commit an act that was an object lesson in evil. Another source of the fascination with the Innocents lay in the Christian view of God's role in the world. Until modern times, mainstream Christianity maintained that God dictated the minutest details of each individual's earthly life. Nothing was by accident; everything was by design. The Innocents fitted nicely into this perspective and indeed reinforced it. The theological consensus was that their deaths had been ordained by divine providence to ensure the survival of the Son of God.
Though providentialism correctly placed God not at the periphery but at the centre of human life, its days are now past. And the case of the Innocents clearly demonstrates why. Who can now seriously claim that God had a hand in the killing of children? Yet the Innocents should not be dismissed along with the intellectual system that long interpreted them. After the providential veneer is peeled away from their story, essential truths remain. Humanity is indeed capable of great evil; Herods still walk this earth. God is with all of us, including children, as we suffer and die. And if Christianity means anything, it means that innocence and virtue are rewarded, though sometimes in a way beyond the capacity of our mortal minds to comprehend.
These truths retain their power. Indeed, they are perhaps more powerful than ever as children die from hunger and war the world over in ever increasing numbers. Such children should be remembered, just as their predecessors in Bethlehem should be, each and every Christmas.
Curtis Fahey is an associate editor of Compass in Toronto.
© 1996 Compass, A Jesuit Journal and Gail van Varseveld