Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Holy Innocents

The Martyrdom of the Holy Innocents - Gustave Dore
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more" (Matthew 2:13-18).
The murder of the children of Bethlehem by Herod is, to be certain, a despicable and sinful act. It is usually depicted as taking place on the scale of a genocide, and we tend to get the impression that a lot more babies were murdered than probably actually were.
Don't misunderstand me, I am in no way going soft on infanticide. One baby-murder is too many. Liberal Bible scholars, as well as those outside of the faith who seek to diminish the credibility of Christianity, often use this story as one of their arguments. "If the madman Herod murdered all of the toddlers and babies in and around Bethlehem," they argue, "would there not be contemporary accounts of the massacre?" One would assume so, if the event happened as we often imagine it to have. And, actually, there is a reliable, contemporary account the murders - the Gospel of Matthew. Archeology has always proven itself the friend of the New Testament, and has shown it to be historically reliable, much to the annoyance of the few liberal scholars who are willing to acknowledge the evidence. That, however, is a debate to be saved for another day.
Herod the Great, or Herod I, has been described as a madman and a murderer, even apart from the Slaughter of the Innocents. He murdered his own family and was "prepared to commit any crime in order to gratify his unbounded ambition" (Herod the Great, 2013). He was hated and mistrusted by the Jews over whom he ruled, and he hated and mistrusted them right back. Not only was he viewed by his subjects as a collaborator with the hated Romans, from whom he received his kingdom, he was also not a "real" Jew. Herod was an Edomite, a descendant of Esau (Herod, 2013). He did all kinds of terrible things to insure his grip on power. If he thought that the rightful Jewish King of the Jews had been born sometime in the last two years near Bethlehem, and that he had to murder all the babies in that place to keep his throne, there is little doubt that he would do so (France, 2007).

The fact that a mad and murderous king committed murder was still sad, but not as shocking as it maybe should have been. It certainly wouldn't have been front-page news. This situation is akin to murders in modern American cities such as Detroit or Chicago. They are committed with chilling regularity and in such a frequency that, to cover them with the attention they deserve would be to dominate every column of every magazine and newspaper in the city every day. This is in contrast with how a murder would be treated if it happened in some affluent suburban enclave where such things rarely occur. Today a murder in Chicago, unless it was particularly gruesome or involved some high-profile person, scarcely gets more than a one-minute mention on the evening news.
But Bethlehem wasn't Chicago or Detroit. It was small. So small, in fact, that it was considered insignificant by worldly standards, as the writings of the prophets suggest:
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days (Micah 5:2).
Traditional Bible scholars believe that, given population density in that area during that time (all estimated, of course), no more than twenty babies and young children were made Herod's unfortunate victims (Hagner, 1993).
But why are they called innocents? Certainly they are not innocent, at least not in the biblical sense. They are sinful human beings, just like everyone else, with a sinful human nature, and they are subject to sin and death. I suppose that they are innocent in the sense that they received a punishment they did not deserve. The death they suffered was intended for the Christ child. In this way they could be considered martyrs as their deaths testify to the Christ, and foreshadow his own suffering and death.
The Holy Innocents teach us that there is no such thing as innocence before God, since the Fall of Man. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. No one is righteous, not even one, all of us having been conceived in sin and brought forth in iniquity. No thing or person has escaped the corruption that entered the world through the sin of Adam. Herod demonstrates the depth of this corruption by his depraved sinful desires, his willingness to act on those sinful desires, the horrific act itself, and its intended end - the murder of God's Anointed One; the death of the Holy Innocents demonstrates that all - even "innocent" babies - are subject to sin and death, and are in desperate need of a savior. As members of the nation of Israel through circumcision, we trust God that the babies murdered by Herod were forgiven sinners because of God's promise, just as we who have been adopted into God's family through baptism are.
Almighty God, whose praise was proclaimed this day by the wicked death of innocent children, giving us thereby a picture of the death of your beloved Son, mortify and destroy in us all that is in conflict with you that we who have been called in faith to be your children may in life and death bear witness to your salvation; through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen (CPH, 1983).

France, R. T. "The Gospel of Matthew (Google EBook)." Google Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Dec. 2013.
"Herod (king of Judaea)." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 28 Dec. 2013.
"Herod the Great." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 27 Dec. 2013. Web. 28 Dec. 2013.
Lutheran Worship. St. Louis (3558 S. Jefferson Ave., St. Louis 63118): Concordia Pub. House, 1983. Print.
"Massacre of the Innocents." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 28 Dec. 2013. Web. 28 Dec. 2013.