December 28th. The Holy Innocents, Martyrs
1st Reading. 1 John 1:5-2:2
We must not walk in darkness, but in the light of the Gospel
Beloved: This is the message that we have heard from Jesus Christ and proclaim to you: God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say, “We have fellowship with him,” while we continue to walk in darkness, we lie and do not act in truth. But if we walk in the light as he is in the light, then we have fellowship with one another, and the Blood of his Son Jesus cleanses us from all sin.
If we say, “We are without sin,” we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing. If we say, “We have not sinned,” we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
My children, I am writing this to you so that you may not commit sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one. He is expiation for our sins, and not for our sins only but for those of the whole world.
Gospel: Matthew 2:13-18
Attempting to kill the newborn Messiah, Herod orders a massacre of children
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.
Martyrs, though they did not know it
Quodvultdeus was a fifth-century Christian from Carthage who knew St Augustine of Hippo (d. 430). In time Quodvultdeus became bishop of Carthage and was later exiled to Naples. He died around 450 AD. In one of his surviving writings, he has this rhetorical sermon, which features in the Office of Readings for today’s feast.
A tiny child is born, who is a great king. Wise men are led to him from afar. They come to adore one who lies in a manger and yet reigns in heaven and on earth. When they tell of one who is born a king, Herod is disturbed. To save his kingdom he resolves to kill him, though if he would have faith in the child, he himself would reign in peace in this life and for ever in the life to come.
Why are you afraid, Herod, when you hear of the birth of a king? He does not come to drive you out, but to conquer the devil. But because you do not understand this you are disturbed and in a rage, and to destroy one child whom you seek, you show your cruelty in the death of so many children. You are not restrained by the love of weeping mothers or fathers mourning the deaths of their sons, nor by the cries and sobs of the children. You destroy those who are tiny in body because fear is destroying your heart. You imagine that if you accomplish your desire you can prolong your own life, though you are seeking to kill Life himself. Your throne is threatened by the source of grace, so small, yet so great, who is lying in the manger. He is using you, all unaware of it, to work out his own purposes freeing souls from captivity to the devil. He has taken up the sons of the enemy into the ranks of God’s adopted children.
These children die for Christ, though they do not know it. The parents mourn for the death of martyrs. The child makes of those as yet unable to speak fit witnesses to himself. See the kind of kingdom that is his, coming as he did in order to be this kind of king. See how the deliverer is already working deliverance, the saviour already working salvation. But you, Herod, do not know this and are disturbed and furious. While you vent your fury against the child, you are already paying him homage, and do not know it. How great a gift of grace is here! To what merits of their own do the children owe this kind of victory? They cannot speak, yet they bear witness to Christ. They cannot use their limbs to engage in battle, yet already they bear the palm of victory.
An oppressive dictatorship
King Herod is portrayed in today’s gospel as a ruler who is prepared to lash out at even innocent children to defend against what he sees as a threat to his power. There have been many such figures down through the course of history, even up to recent times, rulers who are prepared to sacrifice any number of innocent people to ensure that they stay in power. This form of kingship, the kingship of Herod, was the polar opposite of the kingship that Jesus came to proclaim, the kingship of God. Here was a kingship which finds expression not in the oppressive use of power but in the humble service of others. The child Jesus who escaped from Herod’s tyranny went on as an adult to say to his disciples, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.” None of us will ever act like Herod, but none of us can afford to be complacent either; we can all be prone to dominate in one way or another. The first reading today declares, “if we say we have no sin in us, we are deceiving ourselves and refusing to admit the truth.” We have to be alert to the ways we can fail to take that path of humble, self-emptying, service of others which is the way of Jesus, the way of God.