Dec. 28 is the day we remember the “Holy Innocents.”
The term “Holy Innocents” comes from Matthew’s Gospel Chapter 2. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, King Herod, fearing for his throne, ordered that all the male infants of Bethlehem two years and younger be killed. These children are regarded as martyrs for the Gospel — “martyrs in fact though not in will.” This can be compared to the conduct of Pharoah in Exodus 1:16. “When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.”
There are two things which we must note. Bethlehem was not a large town, and the number of the children would not exceed from twenty to thirty babies according to scholar Raymond Brown. We must not think in terms of hundreds. This does not make Herod’s crime any the less terrible.
“Holy Innocents” is not only those who fell victim but also those who fled, like Jesus. Today “Holy Innocents” has been associated with the increasing refugee population, particularly children.
So how many refugees are there in the world ?
According to the UNHCR, By the end of 2022, 108.4 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations. This includes:
As of May 2023, more than 110 million individuals were forcibly displaced worldwide. This marks the largest ever single-year increase in forced displacement in UNHCR’s history, propelled by the war in Ukraine and other deadly conflicts
Half of the refugees are children.
Who is a refugee ? According to the UN, a refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries.
To this day, five of the nine voluntary organizations that partner with the U.S. government to resettle refugees are Christian or church-denomination based. Individual Christians and congregations around the country play a huge role in making this possible.Matthew’s story.
Matthew 2:13-18 -“When the wise men had departed, 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.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
“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.”
Since Herod died in 4 BC and he is depicted as killing all children two years and younger, the birth of Jesus is estimated to be about 6BC.
Herod “the Great,” king of Judea, was unpopular with his people because of his connections with the Romans and his religious indifference. Hence he was insecure and fearful of any threat to his throne. He was a master politician and a tyrant capable of extreme brutality. He killed his wife, his brother, and his sister’s two husbands, to name only a few.
Matthew 2:1-18 tells this story: Herod was “greatly troubled” when astrologers from the east came asking the whereabouts of “the newborn king of the Jews,” whose star they had seen. They were told that the Jewish Scriptures named Bethlehem as the place where the Messiah would be born. Herod cunningly told them to report back to him so that he could also “do him homage.” They found Jesus, offered him their gifts, and warned by an angel, avoided Herod on their way home. Jesus escaped to Egypt.
Once Herod realizes that the magi have circumvented the conspiracy to eliminate this newly king of the Jews, his instinct to preserve his power at all costs kicks in. He knew the approximate date of the child’s birth thanks to the magi’s calculations, and so he ordered the extermination of all children born “in and around Bethlehem.” Herod would not take the chance that this child has slipped out of the city. According to Matthew, Jeremiah 31:15 had already prophesied the cries of anguish that would arise in Israel over such grievous oppression.
Herod’s power did not reach to Egypt which had been under Roman control since 30 B.C It was a classic land of refuge for those fleeing from tyranny in Palestine. When King Solomon sought to put him to death, Jeroboam “arose and fled to Egypt.”
The horror of the massacre and the devastation of the mothers and fathers led Matthew to quote Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loud lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children…” (Matthew 2:18).
Rachel was the wife of Jacob (Israel). She is pictured as weeping at the place where the Israelites were herded together by the conquering Assyrians for their march into captivity in the 8th century or the Babylonian Empire in the early sixth century BCE. It is a personification of the mother of Israel grieving the death and deportation of her children,
Ramah was the place where Rachel lay buried and Jeremiah pictures Rachel weeping, even in the tomb, for the fate that had befallen the people. In Jeremiah, Rachel weeps for the exile of her sons Joseph and Benjamin. One tradition has Rachel buried in Bethel about five miles from Ramah. (1 Samuel 10: 2) Matthew is trying to link up with the Old Testament and to portray the grief of the parents of the children killed by Herod.
Matthew depicts Jesus as the “New Moses” through his Gospel looking to free his people. Just as Herod is depicted seeking to kill Jesus, Jewish people will remember that the Egyptian Pharaoh is depicted as wanting to kill all male Hebrew children (Ex. 2ff.). The baby Moses is therefore put into a “basket made of bulrushes, and daubed ..with bitumen and pitch and …placed ..among the reeds at the rivers’s brink.” He is saved by the daughter of the Pharaoh. Here God intervenes in times of crisis to save those who will play a major role in his divine plan.
One source for Matthew was Hosea 11:1 (“Out of Egypt have I called my Son”). Originally the Hosea passage referred to the Exodus of Israel from Egypt, but Matthew sees that the filial relationship of God’s people is now summed up in Jesus who relives in his own life the history of that people.
The fleeing of Jesus to Egypt would not have been unusual.Every city in Egypt had its colony of Jews; and in the city of Alexandria there were actually more than a million Jews, and certain districts of the city were entirely handed over to them. When Joseph and Mary reached Egypt they would not find themselves altogether amidst strangers, for in every town and city they would find Jews who had sought refuge there.
In modern times, “Holy Innocents” has been connected to Hitler’s treatment of the Jews.
This poster was produced by the Diocese of Ohio in 1938. The poster depicts Mary cradling baby Jesus as she rides a donkey, her husband Joseph turning to watch behind them to see if he is being followed. It’s night and there is a sense of urgency and desperation in this image, as they flee Herod’s violence for safety in another country – Egypt.
In 1938, over 340,000 Jewish people had been forced out of Germany and Austria; 100,000 of whom found refuge in other European countries that were later conquered by Germany. Most of these people were killed. Hundreds of thousands sought refuge in other parts of Europe and the United States. Only a fraction were admitted. Americans feared the Jewish refugees who were seeking asylum from the Nazis and resisted the idea of welcoming them to America. By 1941, emigration was forbidden in Germany and Austria. Most of the Jewish people who remained were killed in concentration camps.
During this time, churches in America sprung into action to respond to this crisis. Before there was a United Nations (UN) Refugee Convention, and before there was the United States Refugee Program, church-led organizations like Church World Service were working to resettle refugees.