Like me, I imagine most Christians read or listen to the story of the massacre of the children by Herod the Great in horror at the cruelty, but tempered somewhat in our minds by our familiarity with the event having come across it so many times. But, I propose here we look at the story more closely and get real with it. In fact, I recommend this approach to any episode in the Bible that has become old hat, so to speak. Put yourself in the scene in the roles of various characters. Listen carefully to what is said. Consider what is implied. Then think about what is not said or done or what could have been said or done instead.
Here is the big question that arises for me: Why did the Holy Innocents (as we call them) have to die? God warned Joseph to take his family and flee (v. 12). But why did not God just stop Herod through a dream, death or other means (e.g., the Magi return but are coy about their findings, or better, they don’t go to Herod at all but receive divine inspiration as to the newborn king’s whereabouts in a dream)? Herod in fact does die shortly after these events. Scholars seem to have settled on his death as in either 4 B.C. or 1 B.C. Jesus’ birth has been placed anywhere from 10 B.C. to 1 B.C. but I tend to be partial to around 4 B.C. The Magi likely came substantially after the birth of Jesus, thus Herod’s order to destroy children two and under in the region (or maybe he wanted to play it “safe” to be sure he killed this potential usurper to his throne). In any case, Herod was soon to die (excruciatingly as it turns out). So why not just bump up his demise? Better yet, why just not wait for the birth of Jesus until after Herod died (remember Joseph’s subsequent dream that his family could safely return after Herod’s death [Mt 2:19-20])?
Also, doesn’t it seem a bit unfair that the Holy Family was warned but not the dozens of families (estimates vary on the number of children massacred but the low double digits seems reasonable) that would be impacted by Herod’s edict? To this point, I wonder as well about the scars the parents carried for the rest of their lives having watched their children brutally slain, many likely being torn out of their arms to be dispatched. Did they ever connect this tragedy with Jesus’ during His ministry? If so, how did they feel about it?
The following verse serves to cover a lot of ground and is one way to approach this problem:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways—oracle of the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, my thoughts higher than your thoughts.Isaiah 55:8-9
Amen, of course, to all of Scripture but let’s not stop there. Why did God deal with this matter in this way? Well, I don’t pretend to speak for the Almighty (you can thank God for that), but here are some thoughts:
- Usually Stephen or John the Baptist are considered the first Christian martyrs, but here we have the first persons to die for Christ. Not knowingly, or willingly, yet they served as the first witnesses to the God-Man, sacrificing themselves in order to let Jesus live to fulfill His mission. Must not this story have been told for years afterward? Certainly the Gospel writer knew of it writing decades after the fact. Did he know it from little up? Or maybe Jesus spoke of it to His disciples in private?
- There is fate worse that bodily death. These little boys had the promise of heaven upon Jesus’ death. Their baptism of blood assured them eternal happiness, a fate not guaranteed had they lived past the age of reason.
- As for warning Herod, who says that the Lord had not done so, maybe repeatedly throughout his life? By all accounts, this pretender to the Jewish throne was quite literally mad so would likely not have heeded warnings anyway. And, certainly, God would not have ordered deception on the part of the eastern visitors (evil is never permitted to be done by us so that a potential good can come from it but God permits evil so that a greater food can come from it). The gift of free will is not something the Lord interferes with. He just asks that we align our wills with His. When we don’t, we, and sometimes the world, must deal with the consequences.
In the end, God does what He does, ordains what He ordains, permits what He permits, for His own good reasons. It is not for us to question it (as if we had a better idea than God), but to learn from it (and questions help us to do so, as we have seen). That is what this exercise we just went through helps us to do.
So, we are blessed to have these heavenly advocates that we commemorate in a special way today but to whose intercession we can appeal at any time, especially when a young child is tragically lost due to illness, accident, or intentional killing. With this last point, we can also consider what many governments allow (including our own) and what governments command (witness China) regarding abortion and even the killing of those born partially or fully. This first century crime which was later committed in writing to the Eternal Word of Scripture should have served as a cautionary tale for all generations but massacres of babies over the centuries and especially in our day dwarfs it millions-fold.
Let us again appeal to the Bible for a comforting final thought:
We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.Romans 8:28
All in all, that’s good enough for me.
I came across the blog entry below referred to in a friend’s post. Long, but worth the read. I was reminded of Bishop Barron speaking of “beige Catholicism.” The good bishop coined the term so I always associate it with him and agree with his characterization one hundred percent.
The Choice: Bourgeois Well-Being or Conversion to Christ: Beige Catholicism and the Challenges of the Young Priest by Larry Chapp at Gaudium et Spes 22