There is a significant feast day virtually overlooked each Christmas season. On 28 December the church recognises the feast of the Holy Innocents. This forms an essential part of the Christmas season which stretches from the Nativity to the Epiphany. Without it we hear only part of the Christmas story. Why then is it virtually ignored every year?
The birth of Jesus is such a joyful celebration with much feasting – and rightly so.
Then there is the timing. In the southern hemisphere Holy Innocents falls just as we take off for our holidays. Summer and the beaches beckon and, even if they don’t, most move into holiday mode. And that is good, too. We all need a break at that time. Add to this the post-Christmas sales boom heavily promoted in the media and the business community. The Holy Innocents gets buried in the flotsam and jetsam of the season.
Yet the significance of the feast is central to an understanding of Christ’s birth and its implications for the human family. It can be properly understood only in its fullness, which includes the Holy Innocents and the Epiphany. That is the triduum of feasts which fully celebrate the Incarnation.
The story itself is well known. The gospels say the three wise men from the east alerted Herod to the birth of Jesus, the long awaited Messiah, whom Herod would have heard about.
Herod immediately saw this as a threat to his throne and to the power of the Roman Empire. As thousands of contemporary Jewish people had found to their cost, violent repression was the way to deal with dissent. Herod did what all dictators do. He sent in the military. Every boy under two in the Bethlehem district was summarily killed.
This was a significant act of slaughter unleashed in an attempt to maintain imperial power.
It wasn’t the first time that an emperor had attempted to halt the plan of God. The Pharaoh of Egypt in the time of Moses had sought the same thing.
We know Jesus escaped through divine intervention and the courage of his parents who fled to Egypt returning only after the death of Herod some years later to settle in Nazareth.
This story should form an important part of the Christmas event because it shows clearly what empires will do to protect their power. The child Jesus is perceived as a threat to the ruling powers. Imperial power will brook no threat then – and no threat now!
In brushing this event out of the Christmas story as understood by billions of people every year, aren’t we selling the complete story short? Christ’s birth and the message he came to proclaim, while Good News for ordinary people, the poor in particular, was a threat to imperial power – then and properly lived, it is now.
It is not surprising that we are too often left with only the tinsel version of the Jesus story – angels singing, shepherds running, cattle lowing and a painless birth. No wonder the Christmas story has so little impact on our contemporary world. We also know that the consumer society has itself largely hi-jacked the story in order to sell goods and maximise profits.
Enter the North Pole reindeer and Boxing Day sales!
Just imagine if we put an appropriate emphasis on the shadow side of the birth story, the killing of the Innocents – if we were seriously reminded each year of the response of the ruling powers to this tumultuous event.
We might just take the birth as it was intended to be – a game-changing event for the human family which re-orientates the relationships between and among people.
Today the killing of the Innocents goes on with children being killed daily through preventable war, poverty and domestic violence. Some 16,000 children die around the world each day from hunger. These deaths are as real now as in the time of Pharaoh and Herod, except on a much larger scale. Even greater numbers are aborted, many at virtual full term. All over the world in so many ways young lives are snuffed out in infancy. Most of these deaths are preventable.
Is it any wonder that modern society has brushed the Feast of the Holy Innocents out of the Christmas picture? To focus on the systemic killing of innocents every year immediately after the birth of Jesus would be a very serious feast indeed. Protecting children and the life of children would become central to the festive season.
Jim Consedine lives at the Thomas Merton CW house in Christchurch, New Zealand.