27 December 2021

The innocence of children
and the ‘divine dignity
inherent in every soul’

Christ and the Children … a stained-glass window in Saint Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick

Monday 27 December 2021

3 p.m.:
Holy Baptism, Ella Roseline Hilary Delbarry

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

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

The days immediately after Christmas recall some of the great saints and martyrs of the early Christian faith: Saint Stephen (26 December), Saint John the Evangelist (27 December) and the Holy Innocents (28 December).

Saint Stephen, Saint John, the Holy Innocents and Saint Thomas à Beckett the day after tomorrow (29 December) are reminders that Christmas, far from being surrounded by sanitised images of the crib, angels and wise men, is followed by martyrdom and violence. Close on the joy of Christmas comes the cost of following Christ.

We remember the children who are the Holy Innocents tomorrow, three days after Christmas Day. This seems so out of sequence, long before the Magi or three Wise Men arrive at Herod’s Palace, never mind at the stable in Bethlehem.

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.

But tomorrow’s Feast of the Holy Innocents, coming so soon after Christmas Day, is an important corrective to some of the prejudices that have become confused with and mixed up with Christianity.

We do not know how many children under the age of two were killed. The numbers vary from 20 (Catholic Encyclopaedia), to 14,000 (Byzantine liturgy), 64,000 (Syrian liturgy), to even 144,000 (Coptic tradition) – the highest figure represents one a minute every day for 10 days; but it also plays on the figure of 144,000 in the Book of Revelation (see Revelation 7: 3-8, 14: 1). In other words, these children figuratively come to represent God’s promise of salvation for the whole of humanity.

Have you considered that these children were never baptised?

Have you ever considered that if these children are innocent, then the Christmas story tells us that, in Christ, every child is innocent?

We baptise children not because they are guilty of anything, not because they need to be made clean in some superstitious way.

In recent weeks, I spent some time reading and reviewing for a journal a new major statement from the Orthodox Church, For the Life of the World.

This may seem like an academic exercise to many. But it makes key insightful statements on children and love.

For example, it says true love can be expressed through children. ‘Already in the womb, each of us is a spiritual creature, a person formed in God’s image and created to rejoice in God’s presence.’ It constantly affirms ‘the full equality and dignity of each human person created in the image and likeness of God’ and ‘the inviolable sanctity of each person’, the ‘divine dignity inherent in every soul.’

It says the ‘Church should extend the sacramental gift of baptism to all children, irrespective of the manner in which they were conceived or adopted,’ and presumes ‘the baptism of infants, and also in their immediate admission to the Eucharist.’

It finds ‘the truest model of life in God’s Kingdom in the innocence of children,’ and it speaks eloquently of ‘the innocence of children’ as ‘a thing of extraordinary holiness, a sign of the life of the Kingdom graciously present in our very midst.’

And so, Ella Roseline Hilary Delbarry, in your innocence you show ‘extraordinary holiness, a sign of the life of the Kingdom graciously present in our very midst.’ You are a blessing to your parents, grandparents, godparents and your whole family; but you are also a blessing to the whole Church and to the whole world, for in you we find ‘the truest model of life in God’s Kingdom.’

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

A detail from the Killing of the Holy Innocents, by Giotto (ca 1304-1306), in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Matthew 2: 13-18 (NRSVA):

13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’

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.’

Liturgical colour: White.

The Penitential Kyries (Christmas):

Lord God, mighty God,
you are the creator of the world.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary,
you are the Prince of Peace.

Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
by your power the Word was made flesh
and came to dwell among us.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect of the Day:

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.

Introduction to the Peace:

We are fellow citizens with the saints
and of the household of God,
through Christ our Lord,
who came and preached peace to those who were far off
and those who were near. (Ephesians 2: 19, 17)


God give you grace
to share the inheritance of the Holy Innocents and of his saints in glory:

A detail from The Killing of the Holy Innocents, by Giotto (ca 1304-1306), in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Possible Hymns:

393, This child from God above (CD 24)
184, Unto us is born a Son (CD 11)
10, All my hope on God is founded (CD 1)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

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