The Death of the Holy Innocents
Gospel Reflection for December 28, 2022 Matthew 2:13-18
When the magi had departed, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said,
“Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt,
and stay there until I tell you.
Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.”
Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night
and departed for Egypt.
He stayed there until the death of Herod,
that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled,
Out of Egypt I called my son.
When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi,
he became furious.
He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity
two years old and under,
in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi.
Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet:
A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loud lamentation;
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she would not be consoled,
since they were no more.
Well, it seems I have chosen a particularly hard Bible passage for my first Gospel reflection! It seems that God never gives me anything easy, but that is as it should be. To be tested and refined in the fire is a sign of His love. How difficult this time must have been for the Holy Family and for the people of Bethlehem! Barely had the words of the angel about “great joy” and “peace to people of good will” ceased to ring through the heavens, when fear, tragedy and grief struck with threats and unthinkable violence.
As a convert to Catholicism, such readings, difficult though they are, have opened to me various truths that were not taught to me in the Methodist, Presbyterian and Baptist churches in which I was raised and educated in the faith. We were taught that “God is love” and that those who love God would live lives full of blessings. While that is true, Catholicism dares face the hard truths of life and history that the doctrines of other denominations are simply too fragile to explore. Catholicism not only admits, but embraces the reality of suffering… real suffering, like fleeing for your life and the slaughter of babies. Consider Fr. Spirago’s commentary on the Catechism in which he states that the Death of the Holy Innocents, which we commemorate today, was due to the treatment of the Holy family and the rejection of not only the prophets but of Christ, Himself. This was especially significant in Bethlehem, as the name of the city relates to bread and implied hospitality and comfort:
An angel told Joseph to fly because Herod was seeking to kill the Child (Matt. ii. 13). After the escape of Our Lord Herod put to death all the children in Bethlehem under two years of age. This was a judgment on the people of Bethlehem for their refusal of hospitality to the Holy Family; the little children themselves gained by their death the joys of heaven.
…Immediately following Christmas are the feasts of St. Stephen, St. John, and the Holy Innocents, as though the Church would say: "If you would follow Christ, you must become a martyr like St. Stephen, if not to the shedding of blood, at least to the denial of self and the bearing of suffering. You must love God and your neighbor like St. John, and do works of mercy; and finally, you must be like a child with God."
This is a very hard teaching for anyone - I guarantee this is not going to be preached in many churches today! We, in our extremely limited human understanding wonder why the innocent Holy family had to flee, why innocent children were killed and why Saint Stephen would be executed merely for his religious beliefs. Yet, the Church teaches us that these were the first people who lived during the time of Christ to experience the promises of Christ - the joy of Heaven. These children were the first martyrs, before even the Crucifixion and Resurrection of their Lord. Saint Joseph would die a natural death and then advocate for the souls in limbo and purgatory, especially the faithful Jews who died before they had a chance to know Jesus. The Blessed Mother would be assumed into Heaven, never experiencing the corruption of death. Saint Stephen saw Jesus welcoming him as he was stoned to death. Suffering meant eternal joy for these first fruits of Christianity.
Perhaps especially, we wonder why innocent children would die. But, it was not they who suffered, but their parents and grandparents, aunts, uncles and siblings. It was those who had refused to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Wow, that is hard to swallow! Yet, even Sodom and Gomorrah, the very symbols of immorality in the Old Testament, were not annihilated merely for sexual perversion and violence, but for lack of hospitality toward the heavenly visitors. It was the lack of hospitality, kindness and love of neighbor that brought the final judgement upon them.
Just about a week ago, Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life was removed from the priesthood. I will not get into that issue here, but when I used to work in politics, I used to communicate with him. When I owned a newspaper, the first thing I did was ask to run his articles. Fr. Pavone was one who led me to Catholicism. I cannot image a more holy priest and a better man than Fr. Pavone. This came on the heels of the historic victory in overturning Roe v. Wade. We went from celebration to sadness, much as we remember the flight of the Holy Family and the Death of the Holy Innocents. We remember the millions of children slaughtered through abortion due to the sins of our nation. Are these Innocents any different from those killed over 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem because their parents refused to love?
Perhaps most significantly we must remember that Satan rules this world. Christ’s kingdom is not of this world. Jesus promises eternal happiness in Heaven. On earth, He promises us suffering and rejection, telling us that if we endure to the end we will be saved. This is not the “prosperity doctrine” of the Protestant televangelist! This is real and painful…. this endures hardship, and life is hard. Anyone who says it is not, is not telling the truth.
So, today we celebrate suffering and the redemption that comes through suffering. We remember that without the Cross, there is no salvation.
As an Herbalist and Herbal author though, I would be remiss if I did not mention the legend of the herb, Sage - Salvia officinalis. Sage has been recognized as a medicinal herb for thousands of years. Hippocrates thought it a panacea writing, “Why should a man die if he has sage in his garden?” Legend states that the Holy Family hid in a stand of sage during their flight into Egypt, and that the plant was blessed by Our Lady to be beneficial to all mankind. The name of the herb derives from Latin, meaning to heal or to be well, and also implies wisdom. If you have a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, it would be very appropriate to plant some sage beside it and to learn of the many medicinal and culinary uses of this herb. The God who saves our souls also provides for the health of our bodies; he heals us and comforts us in our suffering. Salve!