The Feast of the Holy Innocents

On 28th December, in the midst of Christmas and New Year celebrations, sits the Feast of the Holy Innocents, also called Childermas. This day commemorates the massacre of boys aged under two ordered by King Herod to ensure the death of the newborn King of the Jews whose existence he had been made aware of by the Magi.

16 Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.
17 Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying,
18 In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.

(Matthew 2:16–18)

Long dead Rachel wept in her tomb after the fall of Jerusalem, Matthew now sees her lamenting the slaughtered sons of Bethlehem.

Although these children were Jewish, they were regarded by the early church as the first martyrs and the feast appears first to have been commemorated during the 5th century.

The slaughter is not mentioned in any gospel other than that of Matthew, although an account of it is found in the apocryphal gospel of James (c.150AD). Nor is it mentioned in Antiquities of the Jews by the Roman Jewish historian Flavius Josephus who does write of the life of Christ as well as detailing a number of the atrocities committed by Herod including the murder of his own sons, his mother-in-law and his second wife. The first non-Christian reference is in Macrobius’s Saturnalia (c 395-423AD)
When he [emperor Augustus] heard that among the boys in Syria under two years old whom Herod, king of the Jews, had ordered killed, his own son was also killed, he said: it is better to be Herod’s pig, than his son.
(Saturnalia,
book II, chapter IV:11)
Modern scholars believe, however, that Macrobius’s story may refer to Herod’s murder of his own sons at another time and that Matthew’s central concern was to present Jesus as the Messiah and the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Before dismissing the feast as based on mythology rather than fact, it is worth remembering that the slaughter of peasant children, numbering in the tens rather than thousands, is unlikely to have made it onto the pages of contemporary histories. Whatever the historical truth of the story, at the heart of the Feast of the Holy Innocents is the ache of sorrow felt by a parent at the loss of a child, a death outside the natural order of life.

The Coventry Carol which dates from the 15th to 16th century was performed  as part of a mystery play called The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors which followed the nativity story of Matthew’s gospel. In the play Joseph is warned by an angel of Herod’s intentions and flees with his family to Egypt. The carol is sung by three women who remain in Bethlehem with their children – a mother’s lament for her child, haunting and heartbreaking.

Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
Bye bye, lully, lullay.
Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
Bye bye, lully, lullay.
O sisters too, how may we do
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we sing,
‘Bye bye, lully, lullay’?
Herod the king, in his raging,
Chargèd he hath this day
His men of might in his own sight
All young children to slay.
That woe is me, poor child, for thee
And ever mourn and may
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
‘Bye bye, lully, lullay.’

Between 1940 and 1942 Coventry was subjected to repeated bombing raids by the Luftwaffe with the most severe on the night of 14 November 1940. A Christmas Day Empire broadcast was held in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral that year which ended with a small choir singing the Coventry Carol.

The feast is now largely unregarded in our secular world but it can give pause for thought in our time of celebration. Just like the Magi’s gift of the embalming oil, myrrh, the Feast of the Holy Innocents is a reminder of the Lenten antiphon ‘In the midst of life we are in death’ (Media vita in morte sumus).

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