Friday, 28 December 2012

With the Saints through Christmas (3): 28 December, the Holy Innocents

The Killing of the Holy Innocents, by Giotto (ca 1304-1306), Padua

Patrick Comerford

The Church Calendar today (28 December) recalls the massacre of the Holy Innocents, who are sometimes revered as the first Christian martyrs. The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates the feast tomorrow (29 December).

These dates have nothing to do with the chronological order of the event. Instead, the feast is kept within the octave of Christmas because the Holy Innocents gave their life for the new-born Saviour. Saint Stephen the first martyr (martyr by will, love and blood, 26 December), Saint John the Evangelist (27 December, martyr by will and love), and these first flowers of the Church (martyrs by blood alone) accompany the Christ Child entering this world on Christmas Day.

This commemoration first appears as a feast of the western church at the end of the fifth century, and the earliest commemorations were connected with the Feast of the Epiphany (6 January), bringing together the murder of the Innocents and the visit of the Magi.

The story of the massacre of the Innocents is the biblical narrative of infanticide by King Herod the Great (Matthew 2: 16-18). According to Saint Matthew’s Gospel, Herod ordered the execution of all young male children in the village of Bethlehem to save him from losing his throne to a new-born king whose birth had been announced to him by the Magi:

16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18 ‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

In Saint Matthew’s Gospel, the visiting magi from the east arrive in Judea in search of the new-born king of the Jews, having “observed his star at its rising” (Matthew 2: 2). Herod directs them to Bethlehem, and asks them to let him know who this king is when they find him. They find the Christ Child and honour him, but an angel tells them not to alert Herod, and they return home by another way. Meanwhile, Joseph has taken Mary and the child and they have escaped to Egypt.

Saint Matthew’s Gospel provides the only account of the Massacre. This incident is not mentioned in the other three gospels, nor is it mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus, who records Herod’s murder of his own sons. When the Emperor Augustus heard that Herod had ordered the murder of his own sons, he remarked: “It is better to be Herod’s pig, than his son.”

Saint Matthew’s story recalls passages in Hosea referring to the exodus, and in Jeremiah referring to the Babylonian exile, and the accounts in Exodus of the birth of Moses and the slaying of the first-born children by Pharaoh.

Estimates of the number of infants at the time in Bethlehem, a town with a total population of about 1,000, would be about 20. But Byzantine liturgy estimated 14,000 Holy Innocents were murdered, while an early Syrian list of saints put the number at 64,000. Coptic sources raise the number to 144,000 and place the event on 29 December.

Later, the Church of Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls in Rome was said to possess the bodies of several of the Holy Innocents. Some of these relics were transferred by Pope Sixtus V to the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.

In many cathedrals in England, Germany and France, the boy bishops who were elected on the feast of Saint Nicholas (6 December) officiated on the feasts of Saint Nicholas and the Holy Innocents. The boy bishop wore a mitre and other episcopal insignia, sang the collect, preached, and gave the blessing. He sat in the bishop’s throne or cathedra in the cathedral while the choir-boys sang in the stalls of the canons, when they directed the choir on these two days and had their solemn procession.

The Reconciliation monument in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral ... the ‘Coventry Carol’ recalls a mother’s lament for her doomed child (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Coventry Carol, an English Christmas carol from the 16th century and performed as part of a mystery play, depicts the Massacre of the Innocents in Bethlehem. The carol is traditionally sung a cappella, and there is a modern setting of the carol by Professor Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988).

The lyrics represent a mother’s lament for her doomed child:

Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
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 do sing
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

Herod, the king, in his raging,
Charged 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 sigh,
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

Also dating from the 16th century, or perhaps even earlier from the late 14th century, is the hymn ‘Unto us is born a son.’ It has been translated by both George R Woodward and Percy Dearmer. We sang the Woodward version of this hymn at the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, last week, including the third stanza:

This did Herod sore affray,
And grievously bewilder;
So he gave the word to slay,
And slew the little childer.

Massacre of the Holy Innocents, Alexey Pismenny


Heavenly Father,
whose children suffered at the hands of Herod:
By your great might frustrate all evil designs,
and establish your reign of justice, love and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.


Jeremiah 31: 15-17; Psalm 124; I Corinthians 1: 26-29; Matthew 2: 13-18.

Post Communion Prayer:

Eternal God,
comfort of the afflicted and healer of the broken,
you have fed us this day at the table of life and hope.
Teach us the ways of gentleness and peace,
that all the world may acknowledge
the kingdom of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

Tomorrow (29 December): Saint Thomas à Becket.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

No comments: