Even in the time of joy of Advent, with the anticipation of the birth of Jesus Christ, and the wonder and glory of the actual Nativity, one must keep a very important grim reality in mind, if one is to truly understand God, the gift of Jesus Christ, and humans’ own behavior.
The best way to do this is to recall the following while celebrating Christmas. While the faithful celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ over at least a long weekend, most likely a week, and of course many celebrate throughout the month or more, the actual Infant Jesus and the Holy Family, Joseph and Mary, barely had a day to celebrate his birth. One might assume that I mean the temporary lodging in the stable and the poverty of the Lord’s birth, but no that is not what I mean.
Matthew 2:1-3, 7-8, 11-13, 16
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, Magi came from the East to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he that is born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him.” But when King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and so was all Jerusalem [comment: meaning the powerful in his court and among the priests] with him.
Then Herod summoned the Magi secretly, and carefully ascertained from them the time when the star had appeared to them. And sending them to Bethlehem, he said, “Go and make careful inquiry concerning the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and worship him.”
And entering the house, they found the child with Mary his mother, and falling down they worshipped him… And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their country by another way. But when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph, saying, “Arise, and take the child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and remain there until I tell thee. For Herod will seek the child to destroy him.”
Then Herod, seeing that he had been tricked by the Magi, was exceedingly angry; and he sent and slew all the boys in Bethlehem and all its neighborhood who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had carefully ascertained from the Magi.
Then was fulfilled what was spoken through Jeremiahs the prophet, A voice was heard in Rama, weeping and loud lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children, and she would not be comforted, because they are no more.
Yes, within mere days of the birth of Jesus, angels warned both the Magi, who had innocently given Herod the news of the Savior’s birth, and Joseph to flee for Herod planned to kill Jesus. So much faster than we have our tree, our gifts, and our dinner, the Holy Family had to run to save the life of the newborn Jesus.
What is worse, Herod had no way of knowing that the angels had warned the Magi and Joseph, so when he got no further information from the Magi, he decided to have killed every innocent baby who MIGHT be Jesus. Thus he had all infant boys under the age of two in two villages cruelly slain by sword. Imagine the innocent families who had no knowledge of anything having soldiers storm into their village, declaring war on their baby boys and spitting them on swords right in front of the mothers.
Because Herod had no way of knowing that the Holy Family had been warned by angels and fled, he did not pursue them, thinking they were still in the region. Thus those baby infants were the first martyrs of the Church, and are honored three days after the Nativity of Jesus Christ, on December 28. Herod in his deep and dark evil killed every little baby boy who “might” have been Jesus, and thus never thought to mount a pursuit of the Holy Family (since he knew not who they were but yes, think about it, his agents could have found out). But he thought he “took care of the problem” by slaughtering every little baby boy in those two villages under the age of two.
Imagine being Joseph and Mary. Many focus on the Holy Family being away from their home when Jesus was born, and being poor having to be in the stable. But mere days after the birth of Jesus they were fleeing the soldiers of King Herod who came with slaughtering swords, so at Christmas one must also remember the dire peril they were in, and the sacrifice of the innocent babies, who distracted Herod and thus saved Jesus from pursuit.
One cannot really understand the gift of Jesus from God without understanding this slaughter at the mere rumor of his arrival. This is something older children, and most certainly adults, must understand and remember in order to truly appreciate the risk and the grace of the gift of the Infant Jesus to a world ensnared by the most wicked of sin.
From Christian Prayer, the Liturgy of the Holy Hours:
Holy Innocents, Martyrs
Come let us worship the newborn Christ who crowns with joy these children who died for him.
Clothed in white robes, they will walk with me, says the Lord, for they are worthy.
These children cry out their praises to the Lord; by their death they have proclaimed what they could not preach with their infant voices.
From the mouths of children and babies at the breast you have found praise to foil your enemies.
The just are the friends of God.
They live with him forever.
-The just are the friends of God.
They live with him forever.
God himself is their reward.
-They live with him for ever.
Glory to the Father…
-The just are…
At the king’s command these innocent babies and little children were put to death; they died for Christ, and now in the glory of heaven as they follow him, the sinless Lamb, they sing for ever. Glory to you O Lord.
…The Holy Innocents gave witness not by words but by their life’s blood,
-give us strength to be your witnesses before men, both by words and by actions.
They were not ready for battle but you made them fit to win the palm of victory,
-now that we are prepared for victory, do not let us despair.
…You rewarded the child martyrs with the first share in your kingdom,
-do not let us be cast out from the unending heavenly banquet.
You knew persecution and exile as a child,
-protect all children whose lives are in danger from famine, war and disasters.
You see, Catholics do not worship the infant martyrs, but they remember them, 2000 years after they, through no choice of their own, were slaughtered as the first martyrs. We also allow ourselves to imagine their joy and reward from God, as they would have been the "first" into heaven to learn of the arrival of the Messiah and their role.
Understanding the Holy Innocents, Martyrs helps you to understand the Catholic attitude toward saints. They honor and revere with great solemnity the reality that the Infant Jesus had to flee with his family mere days after birth to save his life, a life that was put at risk by naive Wise Men with enthusiastic and worshipful big mouths. Honoring these little baby saints reminds us all that martyrdom at the hands of evil humans accompanies the arrival of good. This is one reason the Catholic Church often references the blood of martyrs, not because they are gory or wishing for such a fate, which is so obviously unjust. The newborn Jesus' life was preserved as innocents were slaughtered by their own people sent by their own King and his evil insecurity.
December 28 is a very important day to me, it always has been, for this reason, to honor the Holy Innocents and their grieving families, and to explain to people to recall that the gift by God of Jesus to humanity was not just someone who “understood poverty,” but whose very life was at risk at the hands of the very people he came to save. This, incidentally, is why fictionalized ex-Bible accounts of the boy Jesus performing miracles is not true; after the slaughter of the Holy Innocents it is not as though the Holy Family exactly proclaimed any miracle working of Jesus and thus might draw down not only on themselves but others another slaughter such as had taken place days after his birth.
Many wish that the spirituality of Christmas could be enhanced. Well, a first step is learning the facts that Jesus had less time in the manger than the average family has a long weekend of Christmas celebration, before he had to flee, and the Holy Innocents became the first martyrs even before one word was preached, and John the Baptist would have been only six months old himself.
I hope that you have found this helpful.