The Innocent and the Innocents

The Reverend Dr Michael Hull writes…

With our celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Christmas, we mark the Incarnation as an historical event. Two millennia ago, Jesus was born in space and time, in the fulness of time as St Paul reminds us (Galatians 4.4). There was nothing accidental about his birth; it had been prophesied by Isaiah (7.14), Micah (5.2) and Hosea (11.1) to Israel; it had been announced by angels to the Blessed Virgin Mary (Luke 1.26–38) and St Joseph (Matthew 1.18–23). On Christmas Day, we rejoice that the Messiah has come, and we sing with the angels, ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’ (Luke 2.14).

The peace and security of the manger is transitory. The Pax Romana, the peace and security in first-century Palestine (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5.3), is fleeting. Part of the miracle and mystery of the Incarnation is that the Saviour is born into a world of sin and shame, the same world in which we find ourselves, and his innocence is all-the-more discernible in contrast to our guilt. We do well, indeed, to rejoice that Jesus has come as an innocent child, and we do well in the midst of that rejoicing to be cognisant of those innocents among us who, though not innocent in the sense of Jesus’ sinlessness (Hebrews 4.15), are threatened as Jesus was from their births, particularly those who would flee their own countries in search of safety, as the Holy Family fled theirs as refugees to Egypt (Matthew 2.13–15). 

In the revelry of Christmastide, it is easy to miss the Feast of Holy Innocents just three days after Christmas on 28 December. The dating not only marks the historical proximity of the Holy Innocent and the Innocents, but also the silent witness of the Innocents. It is St Matthew who recounts the infanticide in Bethlehem on King Herod’s orders (2.16–18). The Holy Child is spared, but the other children are not. Historians surmise between seven and twenty babies, given the population of Bethlehem at Jesus’ birth, were slaughtered. Two millennia hence, it is difficult to comprehend twelve days of Christmas in relief to those mothers weeping for their innocents, despite the fact that the Holy Child will meet a grisly death on the Cross in due course. Why recall this dark day? Why is it in our liturgical calendar? 

One reason may be to recall the mystery humanity’s role in Jesus’ redemption of the world. Though we gather around the manger in adoration, we are not merely spectators of the advent of the Messiah: we are partakers in his mission. As Jesus’ disciples, we are meant to be active participants in spreading the Good News he heralds. This means that we are, to borrow a term from Carl Jung and popularised by Henri Nouwen, ‘wounded healers’. Guilty ourselves of iniquity, yet seeking to extend God’s redemption to others in Christ by whose wounds we are healed (1 Peter 2.24; Isaiah 53.5), we must be cognisant of the suffering around us and respond to it.

The Collect of the Holy Innocents reads, ‘Almighty God, our heavenly Father, whose children suffered at the hands of Herod: receive, we pray, all innocent victims into the arms of your mercy. By your great might frustrate all evil designs and establish your reign of justice, love and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.’

The Feast of the Holy Innocents, like Christmas, is not only a day of remembering past events, although it is surely that, but it is also a day to engage our discipleship. Discipleship entails kneeling at the manger in prayer, singing out ‘Glory!’, and, just as much, establishing a reign of justice, love and peace in a broken world. It behoves us not only to pray that the Holy Innocents and, to be sure, all innocent victims are received into God’s mercy, but also to labour resolutely to halt infanticide, child abuse and domestic violence. It is sad that thugs like Herod were once in power. It is sadder still that two millennia later they remain so in many places, even in democracies where Christians are the majority of the electorate. 

Let us take the hint, then, from our liturgical calendar this Christmastide. Let us hear not only the song of the angels, but the cry of the poor and suffering to build a kingdom on earth where innocents have no fear, where Rachel has no reason to weep and where we disciples continue the mission of Jesus in a world of sin and shame to the end that there is peace on earth, and God is pleased with us.

The Reverend Dr Michael Hull has been an Assistant Priest at St Vincent’s since 2015, and is Director of Studies at the Scottish Episcopal Institute.

St Vincent's Chapel, Edinburgh, the village church at the heart of the city.