Today, 28 December 2022, is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, on which we remember the massacre of the innocents recorded in Matthew chapter 2.
In his Gospel, Matthew presents Jesus as the Son (descendant, heir) of David. Matthew groups Jesus’ teachings into five blocks, and it has often been noted that this is a nod to the Five Books of Moses, Jesus the New Law Giver; but it is surely also a nod to the five books that make up the library of the Psalms.
David is loved by God, but that doesn’t stop him from doing terrible things. Among them, David rapes Bathsheba, then, when she is found to be with child, has her husband, who is away fighting one of David’s wars, murdered to cover his tracks. The child dies, but Bathsheba refuses to be discarded: first, David will take her as his queen, relegating his other wives; then, later, David will name their son Solomon his heir, even though Solomon is nowhere near the head of the line of succession.
When Jesus, Son of David, is born, another king is on the throne in Jerusalem, the pretender, Herod the Great. Herod, also, has issues with his issue. Not long before his own death, Herod had his firstborn son and heir, Antipater II, executed, having already had two sons by his second wife executed some years earlier. On his death, his territory was mostly divided between two sons by his fourth wife and a son by his fifth wife (Herod’s sister also being given a few cities).
Matthew records that Herod, on hearing news of a son born in Bethlehem and being proclaimed David’s rightful heir, ordered that every boy who fell, give-or-take, within the spatial parameters of Bethlehem and the temporal parameters of two-years-old, be killed. Thus, we are told, the wailing lament of Rachel for her lost children (Jeremiah 31:15) is fulfilled. But the lament the Lord speaks of through Jeremiah is the lament of exiled youth, met with the promise of a return from exile. The fulfilment is not Herod’s paranoia but in the exile of the holy family to Egypt and the promise that they will return. Not even Herod and his heirs can prevent this work of God’s grace.
Nothing in God’s selfless goodness makes human selfish wickedness okay. There is a field of darkness that encompasses the hero as much as the villain, a part of all our stories, if not the whole story. But there is a light shining in the darkness, and the darkness cannot grasp it with evil intent, cannot extinguish it. Seal it in a tomb, and it will burst out, ablaze.
Some have questioned the historicity of the massacre of the innocents, but history knows better than to doubt. There have been, and remain, countless children killed before their rightful time to die, through our negligence, our weakness, our own deliberate fault, in the wrong we have done and the good we have failed to do. This is a tragedy. And if death was the final word, an utter waste. But despite the tragedy of life, death is not the final word. Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, a bitter-sweet day no doubt, and yet a day in which all that was intended for harm is caught up in goodness, where every tear of pain is washed away with tears of joy. Where mothers and sons are reunited, and all wrongs redeemed.
God has loved us with an everlasting love. So come to the table of the future, set for us in the present. This night is the fifth night of Christmas. Let us raise a glass to the children.