Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Holy Innocents: The first martyrs


The three days following the Feast of the Nativity are the Feast of St. Stephen (26 December), the Feast of St. John (27 December), and today's observance, the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Stephen was the first disciple to be martyred because of his faith in Christ. John was the only Apostle who did not die a martyr's death but endured severe persecution throughout his long life. The Holy Innocents, however, should rightly be remembered first among the martyrs for Christ. Chromatius, in his Tractate on Matthew, observes:

In Bethlehem therefore all the babies were slain. These innocents who died then on Christ's behalf became the first martyrs of Christ. David refers to them when he says, "From the mouths of nursing babies you have perfected praise because of your enemies, that you might bring ruin to the enemy." . . . For in this persecution even tiny infants and nursing babies were killed on Christ's behalf and attained to the consummate praise of martyrs. Meanwhile the wicked king Herod was destroyed, he who had usurped the realm to defend himself against the king of the heavens. Thus it is that those blessed babes have deservedly lasted beyond others. They were the first who were worthy to die on Christ's behalf.

Some will ask, however, why these innocent children had to die at all. Peter Chrysologus answers this question by considering the bigger picture.

Why did Christ do this? Christ is the judge of thoughts and the examiner of minds. Why did he desert those whom he knew were being sought because of himself and whom he knew would be killed for his sake? He was born a king, the king of heaven -- why did he neglect the standard-bearers of his own innocence? Why did he disdain an army of the same age as himself? Why did he thus abandon those who were cut down as plunder from the same cradle as himself? Was it so that he, who would become the one king, might proceed against the forces of all his enemies? Brothers, Christ did not despise his own soldiers but promoted them and granted that they might walk in victory before they lived. He enabled them to participate in a victory without struggle. He gave to them the gift of the crown even before their bodies had grown. It was Christ's will that they pass over vice for virtue, attain heaven before earth and share in the divine life immediately. Thus it was that Christ sent his soldiers ahead. He did not abandon them. He gathered up his ranks. He did not leave them behind.