Rorate Caeli

Saints of the Old Testament: The Holy Innocents of Bethlehem, martyrs

Triumph of the Innocents
William Holman Hunt, 1883-4

Today, the 4th day of Christmas, the Church celebrates the heavenly birthday of the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem, whom wicked King Herod, seeking to destroy the long-awaited Messiah, slew in the first or second year of the Christian Era.  
Though slain after the birth of Christ, nevertheless they were, like Jesus, "born under the Law" -- that is, they shed their blood in martyrdom before the New Covenant was sealed with the sprinkling of the Precious Blood of the Savior. Thus, the Holy Innocents, like St. Anna, St. Simeon, St. Zacharias, St. Elizabeth, St. Joseph, St. John the Baptist, and St. Dismas, are Old Testament saints who appear only in the New Testament Gospels -- though these others are more usually, and rightly, held to be New Testament saints. Martyred before the institution of the sacrament of Baptism, the sinless Holy Innocents were saved 1) through the faith and Messianic hope signified by the Old Covenant sacrament of circumcision, and 2) through their cruel deaths at the hands of a tyrannical antichrist. The traditional Roman Martyrology notes their birthday into heaven with this comment:

This Day, the Twenty-Eighth Day of December

In Bethlehem, of Juda, the birthday of the Holy Innocents, who were massacred for Christ by King Herod.

St. Matthew, apostle and evangelist, the only historical source for this, the cruelest and most vile of Herod's many atrocities, tells of their martyrdoms in this well-known pericope:

And after [the Magi] were departed, behold an angel of the Lord appeared in sleep to Joseph, saying: Arise, and take the child and his mother, and fly into Egypt: and be there until I shall tell thee. For it will come to pass that Herod will seek the child to destroy him. Who arose, and took the child and his mother by night, and retired into Egypt: and he was there until the death of Herod: That it might be fulfilled which the Lord spoke by the prophet, saying: Out of Egypt have I called my sonThen Herod perceiving that he was deluded by the wise men, was exceeding angry; and sending killed all the men children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the borders thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremias the prophet, saying: A voice in Rama was heard, lamentation and great mourning; Rachel bewailing her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not. (Matthew 2:13-20)
As we have previously seen, in his "Golden Legend" Blessed Jacobus de Voragine, OP, Archbishop of Genoa, observed that, "The Western Church . . . does not celebrate feasts of saints of the Old Testament [on her universal calendar], on the ground that they descended into hell -- exceptions being made for the Holy Innocents, in each of whom Christ was put to death, and for the Maccabees. . . ." (Jacobus de Voragine: The Golden Legend -- Readings on the Saints, Princeton University Press, 1993, translated by William Granger Ryan, vol. II, p.33). Elsewhere, Blessed Jacobus comments on the Holy Innocents:
"The Holy Innocents are so called for three reasons -- by reason of their life, of the death they suffered, and of the innocence they attained. They are called innocent because their life was in-nocent, i.e., not doing injury, since they never injured anyone: not God by disobedience, nor their neighbor by injustice, nor themselves by any sin. Therefore the Psalm says: 'The innocent and the upright have adhered to me'; for they were innocent in their lives and upright in faith. They suffered innocently and unjustly; hence the Psalmist: 'They have poured out [innocent] blood.' And by their martyrdom they attained baptismal innocence, being cleansed of original sin. Of this innocence the Psalm says: 'Keep innocence and behold justice'; i.e., keep the innocence of baptism and thereafter behold the justice of good works." (ibid., vol. I, p.56)
St. Thomas Aquinas explains how the Holy Innocents attained the grace of martyrdom even though they were not old enough to have freely willed to die for Christ, showing that their deaths were analogous to Baptism of blood (albeit prior to the institution of the sacrament of Baptism without which no one can be saved):
Some have said that in the case of the Innocents the use of their free will was miraculously accelerated, so that they suffered martyrdom even voluntarily. Since, however, Scripture contains no proof of this, it is better to say that these babes in being slain obtained by God’s grace the glory of martyrdom which others acquire by their own will. For the shedding of one’s blood for Christ’s sake takes the place of Baptism. Wherefore just as in the case of baptized children the merit of Christ is conducive to the acquisition of glory through the baptismal grace, so in those who were slain for Christ’s sake the merit of Christ’s martyrdom is conducive to the acquisition of the martyr’s palm. 
Hence Augustine says in a sermon on the Epiphany (De Diversis lxvi), as though he were addressing them: “A man that does not believe that children are benefited by the baptism of Christ will doubt of your being crowned in suffering for Christ. You were not old enough to believe in Christ’s future sufferings, but you had a body wherein you could endure suffering of Christ Who was to suffer.”  (Summa theologiae II-II q. 124, a. 1, ad. 1.)

Aquinas in his Catena Aurea also linked together the following chain of comments on the Holy Innocents from the Early Fathers and Doctors of the Church:

PSEUDO-CHRYSOSTOM. When the infant Jesus had subdued the Magi, not by the might of His flesh, but the grace of His Spirit, Herod was exceeding wroth, that they whom he sitting on his throne had no power to move, were obedient to an Infant lying in a manger. Then by their contempt of him the Magi gave further cause of wrath. For when kings’ wrath is stirred by fear for their crowns, it is a great and inextinguishable wrath. But what did he? He sent and slew all the children. As a wounded beast rends whatsoever meeteth it as if the cause of its smart, so he mocked by the Magi spent his fury on children. He said to himself in his fury, ‘Surely the Magi have found the Child whom they said should be King;’ for a king in fear for his crown fears all things, suspects all. Then he sent and slew all those infants, that he might secure one among so many.

AUGUSTINE. And while he thus persecutes Christ, he furnished an army (of martyrs) clothed in white robes of the same age as the Lord.

AUGUSTINE. Behold how this unrighteous enemy never could have so much profited these infants by his love, as he did by his hate; for as much as iniquity abounded against them, so much did the grace of blessing abound on them.

AUGUSTINE. O blessed infants! He only will doubt of your crown in this your passion for Christ, who doubts that the baptism of Christ has a benefit for infants. He who at His birth had Angels to proclaim Him, the heavens to testify, and Magi to worship Him, could surely have prevented that these should not have died for Him, had He not known that they died not in that death, but rather lived in higher bliss. Far be the thought, that Christ who came to set men free, did nothing to reward those who died in His behalf, when hanging on the cross He prayed for those who put Him to death.

RABANUS. He is not satisfied with the massacre at Bethlehem, but extends it to the adjacent villages; sparing no age from the child of one night old, to that of two years.

AUGUSTINE. The Magi had seen this unknown star in the heavens, not a few days, but two years before, as they had informed Herod when he enquired. This caused him to fix two years old and under; as it follows, according to the time he had enquired of the Magi.

AUGUSTINE. Or because he feared that the Child to whom even stars ministered, might transform His appearance to greater or under that of His own age, or might conceal all those of that age: hence it seems to be that he slew all from one day to two years old.

AUGUSTINE. Or, disturbed by pressure of still more imminent dangers, Herod’s thoughts are drawn to other thoughts than the slaughter of children, he might suppose that the Magi, unable to find Him whom they had supposed born, were ashamed to return to him. So the days of purification being accomplished, they might go up in safety to Jerusalem. And who does not see that that one day they may have escaped the attention of a King occupied with so many cares, and that afterwards when the things done in the Temple came to be spread abroad, then Herod discovered that he had been deceived by the Magi, and then sent and slew the children.

BEDE. In this death of the children the precious death of all Christ’s martyrs is figured; that they were infants signifies, that by the merit of humility alone can we come to the glory of martyrdom; that they were slain in Bethlehem and the coasts thereof, that the persecution shall be both in Jerusalem whence the Church originated, and throughout the world; in those of two years old are figured the perfect in doctrine and works; those under that age the neophytes; that they were slain while Christ escaped, signifies that the bodies of the martyrs may be destroyed by the wicked, but that Christ cannot be taken from them.

CHRYSOSTOM. The Evangelist by this history of so bloody a massacre, having filled the reader with horror, now again sooths his feelings, shewing that these things were not done because God could not hinder, or knew not of them; but as the Prophet had foretold.

JEROME. By Ramah we need not suppose that the town of that name near Gibeah is meant; but take it as signifying ‘high.’ A voice was heard ‘aloft,’ that is, spread far and wide.’

PSEUDO-CHRYSOSTOM. Or, it was heard on high, because uttered for the death of the innocent, according to that, The voice of the poor entereth into the heavens. (Ecclus. 35:21.) The ‘weeping’ means the cries of the children; ‘lamentation,’ refers to the mothers. In the infants themselves their death ends their cries, in the mothers it is continually renewed by the remembrance of their loss.

JEROME. Rachel’s son was Benjamin, in which tribe Bethlehem is not situated. How then does Rachel weep for the children of Judah as if they were her own? We answer briefly. She was buried near Bethlehem in Ephrata, and was regarded as the mother, because her body was there entertained. Or, as the two tribes of Judah and Benjamin were contiguous, and Herod’s command extended to the coasts of Bethlehem as well as to the town itself, we may suppose that many were slain in Benjamin.

PSEUDO-AUGUSTINE. Or, The sons of Benjamin, who were akin to Rachel, were formerly cut off by the other tribes, and so extinct both then and ever after. (see Judges 20.) Then therefore Rachel began to mourn her sons, when she saw those of her sister cut off in such a cause, that they should be heirs of eternal life; for he who has experienced any misfortune, is made more sensible of his losses by the good fortune of a neighbor.

REMIGIUS. The sacred Evangelist adds, to shew the greatness of the mourning, that even the dead Rachel was roused to mourn her sons, and would not be comforted because they were not.

JEROME. This may be understood in two ways; either she thought them dead for all eternity, so that no consolation could comfort her; or, she desired not to receive any comfort for those who she knew had gone into life eternal.

HILARY. It could not be that they were not who seemed now dead, but by glorious martyrdom they were advanced to eternal life; and consolation is for those who have suffered loss, not for those who have reaped a gain. Rachel affords a type of the Church long barren now at length fruitful. She is heard weeping for her children, not because she mourned them dead, but because they were slaughtered by those whom she would have retained as her first-born sons.

RABANUS. Or, The Church weeps the removal of the saints from this earth, but wishes not to be comforted as though they should return again to the struggles of life, for they are not to be recalled into life.

GLOSS. ORD. She will not be comforted in this present life, for that they are not, but transfers all her hope and comfort to the life to come.

RABANUS. Rachel is well set for a type of the Church, as the word signifies ‘a sheep’ or ‘seeing;’ her whole thought being to fix her eye in contemplation of God; and she is the hundredth sheep that the shepherd layeth on his shoulder.
All ye Holy Innocents,

All ye holy patriarchs and prophets,

Pray for us!