Herod the Great was not a nice guy. He lived from about 74 BC to 4 BC, and was puppet king over Judaea for the Romans. He was a great builder, having built several cities and fortifications, a couple of palaces, and of course, the splendid Temple in Jerusalem, which lots of folks admired. He kept order (which the Romans liked) and financed his building projects basically by being a brutal despot. Among many others, he slaughtered several of his sons and one of his wives. In fact, the Emperor Augustus is said to have joked, playing on the words, “it’s better to be Herod’s pig (Greek hus) than his son (Greek huios)” since as a Jew he would never slaughter and eat a pig.
It is likely that Jesus was born around 6 BC since Herod is know to have died in 4 BC. (If you want to know how Christ could be born six years before he was born, ask Dionysius Exiguus – AKA “Little Denis”.) There is no record of the massacre of the innocent children around Bethlehem (see Matthew 2:13-18) outside the Gospel of Matthew, but all scholars agree it was true to Herod’s character. A lot of his Jewish subjects hated him, and he hated them right back. He was quite old (about 70) and close to death at the time, and undoubtedly his paranoia exacerbated his brutality. (Not many rulers in those days lived into old age, and few died a natural death.)
Scholars estimate that the number of male children under two years in the neighborhood of Bethlehem at the time probably did not exceed a dozen, and so such a military action, sad and brutal as it was, would not have even been a blip in history. In fact, the non-canonical Protoevangelium (Infancy Gospel) of James recounts that Herod at the same time murdered Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist.
This story is recounted only in Matthew’s Gospel, and serves primarily to demonstrate that Jesus is prefigured in the events of the Old Testament. The slaughter of the innocent children recalls the cruelty of the Egyptian Pharaoh in ordering the death of the Hebrew children (Exodus 1). As God delivered his people through the cruelty that was done against them, so in Christ God brings new life out of evil.
I like this painting of the “Triumph of the Innocents” by the 19th century, pre-Raphaelite British painter, William Holman Hunt. Most images depict the tragedy of the scene in gory detail, but this sees beyond the momentary tragedy and hardship, and depicts the flight into Egypt with the now sanctified infants as a triumphal procession of victory.
Our Catholic tradition sees the unknowing and therefore unwilling martyrdom of these infants as a sign that God takes the initiative in his relationship to us. Salvation is first and foremost God’s work, even before we are aware of it. A traditional counsel for a healthy spiritual life is to see everything “sub specie aeternitatis” – in the light of our eternal destiny. Perhaps the lesson for today is to see God’s loving hand in everything, including that which, humanly speaking, is hopeless tragedy.
Of course, it all boils down to love, doesn’t it? It has to. A God who doles out favors – even eternal life – as a reward for good behavior is more of a jurist or business person than a Lover. The only reason why one might want to spend eternity with God is love. Heaven, however we conceive of eternal fulfillment, has to be something beyond mere enjoyment of rewards. Pleasures grow old and cold; only Love has the power to be enduring. The our celebration of the Holy Innocents, eternally embraced by God’s Love without any merit or even willing response on their part, is a strong sign that God love us too so much that God will not let go of us no matter what.
Here’s the homily which I gave at the Mass here at Nazareth House this morning: