Observed on December 28 this year, the Feast of the Holy Innocents honors the memory of the infants who were slaughtered by King Herod following the birth of Jesus. Though the Holy Family escaped Herod’s wrath by fleeing into Egypt, the innocent baby boys of Bethlehem fell victim to his manic fear of losing power. Their death is likened to martyrs’ deaths, and the Church considers them holy. Learn more about the history and meaning of this feast day.
The Historical Account
After the birth of Jesus, the Magi saw an unusual star in the heavens that led them to Jerusalem, and at the palace of Herod, they inquired after the newborn king of the Jews. Herod consulted with the chiefs and scribes and sent the Magi to Bethlehem, asking them to return to him following their visit. However, after honoring the Christ Child, the Magi neglected to return to Herod, realizing his malicious intent against a perceived threat to his reign.
Matthew details the horror of the event in Chapter 2 of his gospel account:
“When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi, he became furious. He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi. Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet:
‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loud lamentation;
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she would not be consoled,
since they were no more.’”
Flight into Egypt
Prior to the massacre, the Holy Family was warned by an angel who appeared to Joseph in a dream, telling them to flee to Egypt. After safely residing in Egypt for a number of years, they returned to Israel to dwell in Nazareth. This fulfilled the prophecy of Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I called my son,” showing Jesus as the perfect son to fulfill God’s covenant. He wasn’t simply the Son of David or the Son of Mary – He is first and foremost the sinless Son of God.
The Need for a Righteous King
This tragic event demonstrates the need for a true and righteous king for God’s people. At the time of the magi’s journey, Judea was under the rule of the ruthless King Herod. Desperate to cling to power, he killed anyone he viewed as a threat – including many of his own family members. Herod’s demand for dominance and disregard for his people’s well-being ultimately drove him to commit the mass murder of innocent children.
In contrast, Jesus came as the true King, to restore order and give hope to a world struggling in the bonds of sin and death. He offers justice for those who have been wronged, and mercy for all who have sinned. He has perfect power over heaven and earth, and in His sacrifice, He triumphed over the oppressions perpetuated by a succession of imperfect earthly kings. He forgives our disobedience against His holy law and invites us to live as His adopted sons and daughters.
As we reflect on this feast day, we can rest in the comfort that Jesus came to bring justice to a fallen world. We look forward with hope to when He will return in power and glory. Romans 8:19, 22-25 describes:
“For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God…We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now; and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance.”
“Holy Innocents,” Franciscan Media.
“Holy Innocents,” New Advent.