Right here in the middle of the joy of the Christmas Octave, we have the feast of what seems to be an incredibly horrible event. All of the male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem two years old and younger are murdered by the jealous and, quite frankly, rather pathetic Herod. But not only are his plans to kill the Christ Child (and thus remove any threat to his reign) thwarted by the providence of God, but also the horror of this event is transfigured into something rather glorious in terms of the Kingdom of God.
As I said, in some ways, this is a horrible feast. And we can relate, I think. Just think about the millions who have been slaughtered by abortion, and the many children who die in inner-city violence every year, and we see just how precarious childhood can be in every time and place. But the Church, in recognizing the contribution of the Holy Innocents to the kingdom, turns all of this sadness into hope and asserts that this is just the beginning of the world’s seeing the glory of Jesus Christ. As disgusting and repugnant as Herod’s actions are to our sensibilities, yet these innocent children bear witness to the Child Jesus. Saint Quodvoltdeus, an African bishop of the fifth century writes of them:
The children die for Christ, though they do not know it. The parents mourn for the death of martyrs. The Christ child makes of those as yet unable to speak fit witnesses to himself. But you, Herod, do not know this and are disturbed and furious. While you vent your fury against the child, you are already paying him homage, and do not know it.
To what merits of their own do the children owe this kind of victory? They cannot speak, yet they bear witness to Christ. They cannot use their limbs to engage in battle, yet already they bear off the palm of victory.
I think the key to making sense of all this is in the first reading. The line that really catches me, because it seems almost erroneous in light of the horrible event we remember today, is “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.” We can see all kinds of darkness in an event like the murder of innocent children. Yet only God could turn something that horrible around to his glory. They may have lived extremely short lives on earth, yet their lives in eternity were secured forever. They become some of the first to participate in the kingdom that Christ would bring about through his Paschal Mystery.