When the magi had departed, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said,
“Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt,
and stay there until I tell you.
Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.”
Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night
and departed for Egypt.
He stayed there until the death of Herod,
that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled,
Out of Egypt I called my son.
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. (Matthew 2, 13-18)
Matthew’s gospel alone describes the flight into Egypt and the massacre of the Innocents. An angel tells Joseph in a dream to take the Child and his mother into the safety of Egypt to stay till the death of Herod.
Other children born in Bethlehem will not escape the ruler’s cruelty, who orders a massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem two years old and under.
What do we make of this story?. No historical source from the time mentions it, but the massacre isn’t inconceivable. Herod was a powerful ruler, notoriously cruel, especially if his own power was threatened. His massive fortress, the Herodian, just outside Bethlehem, guarded the southern approaches to his kingdom. Fearing a coup, Herod killed his wife and three sons, historians of the time report. There were countless innocent victims of his besides, so his massacre of little children is not unlikely.
New Herods still kill the innocent. Just listen to the daily news.
The Feast of the Holy Innocents reminds us evil is in our world, seeming to contradict the “great joy that is for you and all the people.” Philosophers, the well-off, religious people, ordinary people, all of us face it in different ways. Why does God permit such things?
Joseph, warned in a dream, takes the Child and his mother into Egypt, Matthew says. The Child returns from Egypt unharmed, but later Jesus will stand innocent before Pontius Pilate who condemns him to a cruel death. Then, he rises from the dead, promising life to those who share in a death like his. Our feast today sees the children of Bethlehem sharing in his resurrection, safe in God’s hands. Evil does not have the last word.
“Clothed in white robes, they will walk with me, says the Lord, for they are worthy.” (Antiphon for the Feast of the Holy Innocents)
Matthew’s story was directed, first of all, to Jewish Christians living after Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD,, when thousands of innocent people were killed by a massive Roman army. Why did God permit this? Where is the kingdom Jesus Christ promised, they must have asked? We ask this too.
Evil doesn’t triumph, though it strides the world seemingly unopposed, but God saves the weak, the small, the helpless through Jesus, his Son. Matthew’s story of the Magi promises God ‘s kingdom will come to all.
Still, Matthew recognizes those experiencing the suffering of the innocent.. He hears the sobbing and the loud lamentation: “Rachel weeping for her children, and she would not be consoled, since they were no more.”
“She would not be consoled, since they were no more.”
Tomorrow, we return to Luke’s Gospel to hear Simeon prophesy to Mary that a sword will pierce here heart.