Holy Innocents Have New Importance in Our Times
Father Richard Kunst
I suppose each priest can speak for himself, but in my nearly 15 years of experience I have found the week between Christmas and New Year’s to be about the slowest and most quiet time of the year. Many people are still away for the holidays, there is no school, and no meetings ever seem to be scheduled for that week.
Because we are still focused on the gifts (and returns) and the looming new year, we tend to neglect what is going on in the liturgical year. The week after Christmas has some very important, and dare I saw powerful, feasts on the liturgical calendar. The day after Christmas we honor the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen. Dec. 27 has St. John the Evangelist, the patron of one of my parishes, also known as the Beloved Disciple of Jesus. Dec. 28 has the Holy Innocents, those small children who unwittingly gave their lives for Christ. On Dec. 29 we celebrate the great English martyr and bishop St. Thomas Becket. Finally, on the last day of the year we celebrate the holy Pope St. Sylvester, who according to legend baptized the Roman Emperor Constantine.
One of these feast days speaks more eloquently than the others in our modern era, and that is the feast of the Holy Innocents. Who would have ever thought back in the fifth century, when this feast was first introduced into the church’s calendar, that it would come to represent an even more brutal killing of holy innocents through abortion? Because of abortion, this feast day has taken on a greater importance. Here in the Diocese of Duluth, the closest parish church to the only abortion mill in the diocese has a perpetual adoration chapel dedicated to the Holy Innocents, in part to mark those who are being killed just a few blocks away.
Yet the Holy Innocents are not typical martyrs in the traditional sense of the term. When one thinks of a martyr, what comes to mind are examples like some of the other saints during this slow week between Christmas and New Year’s day. St. Stephen clearly died for his faith in Jesus. St. Thomas Beckett died for his faith in the church. These holy men deliberately decided to risk and even sacrifice their lives for their faith. Yet this is not the case with the Holy Innocents. Herod ordered the death of all the boys two years of age and under in the vicinity of Bethlehem in the hopes of killing Jesus, who, he thought, threatened his own kingship.
These little boys were not willing participants in this tragedy. They were killed while unaware of what was going on; they did not deliberately decide to offer their lives for Jesus like traditional martyrs do. Still the church refers to them as martyrs for Christ, but not for Christ alone, but martyrs for the truth of the fifth commandment, “thou shall not kill.”
We know there are different types of baptism. The traditional means of baptism by water is the norm. But there is also the baptism by blood. This was common in the early church, when the process of entering into the church could take years and in the meantime, some of the Christians who were preparing to enter into the church were killed for the faith they were yet formally to profess. These martyrs shed their blood before being baptized by water: hence they had a baptism of blood. We have hope, then, that these aborted holy innocents are in heaven with God, and not in some “natural state of happiness” that some in earlier generations proposed. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who suffer persecution for justice’s sake because theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10).
The new translation of the Roman Missal has some powerful prayers for the feast of the Holy Innocents. Here is a part of the opening prayer for Mass that day: “O God, whom the Holy Innocents confessed and proclaimed on this day, not by speaking, but by dying ….” And then the prayer over the offerings says in part: “… by which you grant justification even to those who lack understanding.” Cannot both these ideas that we see professed in the liturgy for that day also be said of the children who die by abortion? Because these children are being murdered at an age of complete innocence of personal sin it would seem to me that they have been chosen by God to have died as martyrs in much the same way the Holy Innocents did 2,000 years ago.
Because of this association of Holy Innocents and the infant victims of abortion there has been in some circles a growing desire to see the church acknowledge the victims of abortion as martyrs and maybe even as saints. It is my personal opinion that this would be a good move in the fight to end the horrors of abortion. What greater way to defeat abortion than invoking the victims of abortion to help in the fight?
Holy Innocents, pray for us!