Bleak and brutal. These words come to mind today—December 28, the Feast of the Holy Innocents—when the Church remembers the children who were murdered in what the poet John Donne calls “Herod’s jealous general doom” (“La Corona”). Of course, no words, poetic or prophetic, can quite capture the unspeakable horror of the slaughter Herod decreed. Even the Evangelist Matthew, who gives us the beautiful, evocative descriptions of Joseph’s dreams and the journey of the Magi, provides few details of the killing itself, moving quickly to place the event in the line of prophecy:
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 2:16-18)
Rachel, a key figure in salvation history, appears in one of the most sublime biblical stories. Her beauty was such that the patriarch Jacob, after being tricked into first marrying her sister Leah, labored for fourteen years before gaining her hand in marriage. Rachel bore Jacob two sons; Jeremiah depicts her weeping for her descendants when they are later taken into captivity. She is subsequently consoled by the Lord, who says, through Jeremiah, that Israel will be restored. Thus, we are to understand from Matthew that the people of Bethlehem are to be consoled by the knowledge that their little ones died to save the Messiah, who will restore all things for all time.
Yet Matthew in no way lessens or spiritualizes the horror of the massacre. Looking at the whole of the second chapter of his Gospel, we see key details about the execution and the jealous rage of the man who ordered it. The first sign of trouble comes when the Magi arrive at Jerusalem inquiring about the birth of “the newborn king of the Jews.” As king of the Jews under the Romans, Herod is “greatly disturbed” by the news and calls on the chief priests and scribes to tell him where “the Messiah was to be born.” Notice how Herod sees his royal title threatened by the birth of one he himself refers to as “Messiah.” Did he imagine that being king elevated him to the unique role of Messiah?
After telling the Magi that Bethlehem was the prophesied birthplace, Herod asks them to report back to him when they have verified the birth so that he may “go and offer him homage too.” However, he seems to have been a better tyrant than liar. His fear and ambition were evident to the Magi, who, after receiving a warning in a dream, return home by another route.
Now the plot thickens and Herod’s “jealous general doom” is fully revealed. While an angel warns Joseph to escape to Egypt with Jesus and Mary, Herod orders the murder of all boys aged two and under in Bethlehem and the surrounding area. Think about that for a moment. He has been hatching this maniacal plan for some two years. Even after he dies, Herod’s mania is imaged in his son, Archelaus, whose reputation for brutality causes Joseph to avoid Jerusalem and settle instead in Nazareth.
This story is part of what are called the infancy narratives. Scholars debate the historical authenticity of many of the events, seeing in them instead a moral or spiritual message. Some interpret the slaughter of the innocents as symbolizing a larger, analogous truth, since such heartless killing, they believe, could never occur in a civilized age.
Well, if there is an analogous truth to be told, it can be found in our own “civilized” age. Does it stretch the imagination to see in our current president an image of the ancient king? After all, in order to keep up with the radical policies of his party, he has progressively increased his support for our modern-day slaughter of the innocents. A self-professed Catholic who once claimed to embrace the Church’s teaching against abortion, Joe Biden, like Herod, has tried to have it both ways. As Herod claimed his rule over the Jews while he attacked the very foundation of the faith by seeking to murder the Messiah, so our president professes allegiance to the Catholic faith while undermining its most basic commandment: Thou shall not kill. By his duplicitous words and actions, he spreads very public scandal and confusion among the faithful.
One more point. The chief priests and scribes, who served Herod in their official capacity when he sought the birthplace of the Messiah, apparently were silent after they realized the reason for his interest in the child. Nothing in the Gospels suggests that they censured or in any way publicly criticized Herod’s fatal deed. How are religious leaders today doing in their stand against the president?
And the slaughter goes on.