Feast of the Holy Innocents (tr.)
Morning Office Readings: Psalms 2, 26; Isaiah 49:13-23; Matthew 18:1-14
Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the LORD has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones. But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.” (Isaiah 49:13-14)
Comites Christi: Companions of Christ. In the Middle Ages, the church gave this name to the trio of Feast Days the church observes on the second, third, and fourth* days of Christmas, the days that overlap with our remembrance of Christ’s incarnation: St. Stephen, St. John, and the Holy Innocents.
St. Stephen, as Fr. Greg reminded us, is the church’s first deacon and her first martyr. St. John is an apostle but perhaps remembered best in tradition as the evangelist who gave us the gospel that bears his name. And the Holy Innocents—those baby boys of Bethlehem, bystanders, slaughtered by a fearful King Herod, while their parents wept and, like Rachel, refused to be consoled.
Companions of Christ: that is who, or what, might we find lurking close by when we draw near to Jesus, the child at his mother’s breast, our crucified and risen Lord? Service and humility, persecution and martyrdom, a call to tell God’s story: that even the deepest darkness cannot overcome the true light.
Yet hear this; this is no cheap cliché meant to soothe, no pithy band-aid offered for a gaping wound of grief. Angels’ songs are interrupted by parents’ wails, and the Feast of the Holy Innocents reminds us, insists that the truth of Christmas will not be reduced to a sentimental, soft-lit Silent Night. The Christmas story—this Christmas story—tells us what we already know all too well: that children die, and sometimes are never born at all. Mothers weep and fathers moan; empires still stand; refugees flee; tyrants rule with fear and rage, and soldiers are just following orders.
And yet still, still God comes, born into a world of sorrows. God draws near to this world; the Lord has neither forsaken nor forgotten God’s people. There is no quick fix; remember that the Herod of the Holy Innocents is later replaced by yet another Herod, another fearful king, who wills the death of yet another Son of Bethlehem. In the shadow of that cross, yet another mother weeps. But God will not forget us.
You see, it’s not very merry, perhaps, not in a tinsel-y sort of way, but it’s where we find our Christmas hope. The Lord comforts; he has compassion. In coming to be with us just as we are—broken and cruel and heartsick—Jesus turns us, too, into Companions of Christ. Emmanuel: God is with us.
We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
*The Feast of the Holy Innocents is on December 28, usually the 4th Day of Christmastide. This year, because December 28 falls on a Sunday and a Sunday takes precedence over this particular major feast, Holy Innocents is transferred to Monday, December 29, the 5th day of Christmastide.