The story of the Holy Innocents is difficult to top, just because of its sheer barbarism; a heinous crime committed with not really a very logical motivation. Perhaps some are tempted to write it off as mere legend; a Bible story that is rather colorful, but not very real. In fact, however, the murder of the Innocents was very much “in character” for Herod, whom we know from secular history to have murdered two of his own sons “Aristobulus and Alexander (6 B. C.), whom Antipater, his son by [a different wife,] had accused of plotting against their father's life.”[ii] The Church venerates them as virgin-martyrs – and, perhaps, in our days we might think of the Innocents as being prophets of the war against Christendom and human life itself.
The sanctity of human life has been a cornerstone of our civilization from the time of creation itself. God made the universe to “show forth His goodness,” and that goodness is manifested primarily in His rational creatures. He made the angels in infinite variety, powerful intellects, unencumbered by the limitations of the physical world. He made men and women, “a little lesser than the angels,” and told them to “go forth and multiply,” so that they might show forth His goodness among His material creations. From the very beginning, it is revealed to us that God distinguished mankind from all of the other creatures of the world that were under man’s dominion.
When Cain slew Able, God said that the latter’s “blood cried out from the earth” for justice.[iii] And when Noe completed the time of the flood and left the ark, God gave him a rudimentary version of the moral law that prohibited murder: “Whoever shall shed man’s blood, his blood shall be shed; for man was created in God’s image. But increase ye, and multiply, and go upon the earth and fill it.” During the Exodus, when God revealed His law more completely to Moses, it included a similar prohibition and penalty: “If any man strike with iron (or stone or wood) and he that is struck shall die, the striker shall be punished in the same manner. The kinsman of him that was slain shall kill the murderer.”[iv] Our Lord’s injunction in the New Testament about not taking “an eye for an eye” has taken some of the vengeance out of punishing murderers and from keeping them from repeating their crime – yet most people still view the unjust taking of a life as the most serious of crimes.
In civil societies, the protection of innocent human life has always been the paramount function of states and nations. Civilized societies exist to provide mutual protection to their citizens; protection of their lives and properties from invaders, foreign as well as domestic. Civil society is never perfect. If we look back over the centuries we will see that our ancestors may have been a bit more heavy handed than we like – but gentility is often a luxury. The Greek and Roman societies protected their citizens but did so at the expense of outsiders. The feudal societies of medieval Europe may seem to have been repressive of the lower classes who worked the land, but feudalism gave both the upper and the lower classes a chance to survive in the face of invasions by the barbarians from the north, the Moslems from the south, and the Huns from the east. At least in earthly terms, nothing else makes any difference if you are dead!
Our own American Republic began with the premise that all men possessed an unalienable right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” - in that order - and that it is precisely “to secure these rights that governments are instituted among men.”[v] That is the essential purpose of government - the thing that gives any government legitimacy – that among men it enforces God’s laws, allowing its people to live as God planned. There may be other legitimate functions of government, but the government which consistently fails in its primary obligation to protect the “unalienable right” to live safe from all unjust aggression ceases to be a legitimate government. That reality is part of our heritage, both as Catholics as well as Americans.
I would suggest that the Holy Innocents are prophets of our modern disrespect for innocent life in a very special way. Herod was a murderer from a family of murderers– not only of the Innocents, but of many others under his rule, both young and old – not to mention a goodly number of his own family. God did not allow this to continue for long. When he died of incurable illness the Jews celebrated his death as a feast day. His kingdom was divided among his remaining sons, but the reign of Archelaus over Judea was so abominable that the Romans removed him from office and replaced him with a Roman procurator. Herod’s son, Herod Antipas, who ruled in Galilee and east of the Jordan a bit longer than his brother, was denounced by Herod’s grandson, Herod Agrippa, who died just a few years after our Lord, from having been eaten alive by worms.
The Holy Innocents ought to remind us that Herod and his family’s disregard for human life and misery brought about their own end. It ought to remind us that we cannot go on for long if we continue to contracept and abort our own children as though they were some sort of disease; that we cannot go on for long killing our elders when they become too much of a burden, without teaching our own children to dispose of us.
Christendom is dieing out. Beyond our moral bankruptcy and public denial of God, we are simply reducing our own numbers by failing utterly to replace ourselves in the population. Throughout Western society, the birth rate is around half of the 2.1 children required just to maintain the population. Without ever firing a shot, the followers of Christ may be replaced by the followers of Mohammed, or Mao Tse Tung. Our Lord promised that He would remain with His Church until the end of time, but He made no promise that His Church would always retain the size and splendor it possessed in the middle ages – and He made no promise whatsoever about the survival of the nations of Europe or the Americas.
Disregard for the “unalienable right” to life is against God’s law, and against the law which gives nations their legitimacy, and, indeed, it is suicidal. But allow me to raise just one more point.
This feast of the Holy Innocents is celebrated in purple vestments – red ones only if it falls on a Sunday. The Innocents, even though they were martyrs, died before the Resurrection of our Lord and the consequent redemption of mankind. The purple reminds us that the Innocents did not see the beatific vision of God until that day of Resurrection, which we celebrate each Sunday. May God have mercy on us, for each of His children, whom we cause to die in the state of original sin, perhaps deprived of the vision of Him for all eternity.
May the Holy Innocents have mercy on us, and obtain the grace of conversion for us and for all who fail to respect the human life created by God, “just a little bit lower than the angels,” to show forth His goodness throughout eternity.