This is the day, December 28th, appointed by the Book of Common Prayer for the commemoration of the slaughter of the Judean children who came to be known as the Holy Innocents. The story is told in the second chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. There it is recorded that King Herod, in an attempt to rid himself of the threat of the coming of the Messiah, ordered his soldiery to slay all infants below the age of two years in Bethlehem and the region roundabout. How many were thus slain, we do not know. They were innocent children, whose only crime was to have been born about the same time as Jesus Christ.
The event began to be commemorated in the Christian churches of north Africa by at least the first quarter of the fifth century A.D., and was everywhere observed throughout the Western Church by the end of that century. It evidently had a universal appeal, because the Eastern Churches also took it up.
The story is simple -- and terrible. Herod was familiar with the prophecies about the coming of a Messiah. He heard from the Magi -- the Wise Men, the “kings from the Orient” -- that the Christ had been born. Herod inquired of them as to the date. He also summoned the chief priests and scribes and learned that Christ was to be born in Bethlehem. Time passed, and some time later Herod ordered the murder of all children in the area under the age of two years. He sought to make a clean sweep by this move and to safeguard himself against a rival “King”. But our Lord escaped Herod’s cruelty because, in response to a warning from God, Mary and Joseph took the child to Egypt until Herod died.
This revolting act of the Judean despot, an all too common version of human cruelty to the innocent, deserves its annual commemoration for it reminds us of the futility of man’s frequent attempts to frustrate God’s plans and actions. This is unusually pertinent in our present troubled times, when the world is full of people willing to go to any lengths in a vain attempt to interfere with God. The particulars of the story also suggest some thoughts and applications with respect to the current burning issue of abortion. Observance of Holy Innocents Day is a useful reminder to us, in the words of one commentator, “of what happens all too often in our tragic world unscrupulous sacrifice of many innocent victims because of the ambitions and jealousies of men whose lust for power blinds them to all sense of justice and decency”. The innocent suffer, but God’s will prevails and Christ and His message of love and mercy survive.