Getting Holy Innocents Right

It is celebrated in red because the children were dead, not because the Family fled

Tomorrow, December 28, is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, Martyrs. I make that explicit because in the past few years there has been something like an ecclesiastical version of bait-and-switch in some quarters to change the focus of the feast.

Today’s feast is about children: baby boys aged two and under put to death by order of Rome’s surrogate “king” in Judea, Herod the Great. The Gospel (Mt 2:13-18) explains the murderous decree as part of Herod’s reaction to the news he received from the Magi, who had inquired in his court about “the newborn king of the Jews.” Herod ordered the murders both to eliminate a potential rival and out of fury that the Magi “deceived” him because they “had returned to their country by another way” (v. 12) rather than report back to him.

Generation after generation has recognized the perfidious and heinous nature of Herod’s act. They recognized the murdered boys as martyrs. And the focus of the feast was precisely on that. Until recently.

About three years ago, both Fr. James Martin and papal biographer Austen Ivereigh tweeted about December as a kind of feast of refugees. That trope has been picked up by various others. They focus on the fact that, in response to an angelic warning, Joseph took his wife and foster child and “fled to Egypt.” That is true. But that is not the core of the feast. The feast honors innocent children who were killed out of hatred of Christ. The feast honors their blood.

Yes, the Holy Family fled and their sojourn in Egypt has a theological significance (Jesus as New Moses, who comes up from the land of slavery). But putting the focus there is like treating the Way of the Cross primarily as a lesson in neighborly assistance from Simon of Cyrene. Yes, that element is there, but it’s not the core.

But aren’t the likes of Martin and Ivereigh just addressing contemporary issues? Hasn’t Pope Francis put such emphasis on “welcoming” the refugee and immigrant?

Well, should we downplay the central element of the feast to focus on “contemporary issues” (or maybe even advance a political agenda)?

And need I remind readers that the killing of children — newborns and unborn — is also very much a contemporary issue, one which Vatican II — the Council that we are all supposed to be listening to — calls “unspeakable crimes” of our day (Gaudium et spes, no. 51). The United States has the blood of 63,000,000+ unborn children on its hands. It has a political party committed to the perpetuation of that practice. It has multiple failures of lawmakers to advance legislation making clear that a newborn child — unquestionably guaranteed the right to life by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States — must be provided medical care to save his life at birth irrespective of his health or handicap, even if his mother wanted him dead a moment before.

Like secular “historians” who try to rewrite historical events in order to advance their agendas (e.g., that America’s “real” founding was in 1619, with the importation of the first slaves, not 1776 with the Declaration of Independence), those trying to twist the meaning of the Feast of the Holy Innocents want to displace what has been received with their concerns.

A certain contingent in the Church, in the United States and abroad, has for the past 50-plus years paid lip service to the right to life but never really wanted to do anything effective to protect it and certainly never at the expense of their otherwise political allies. They admit the right to life is important, but it’s not “preeminent.” It has to be weighed against a whole constellation of issues.

No, it does not. If I’m not alive, increases in federal funding to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families doesn’t mean anything to me. They say we should focus on providing assistance to concrete women, not emphasizing changes in laws. Please show me the Catholic who said, “We should help African Americans advance by concrete assistance, not bother with changing Jim Crow.” They wave — usually preemptively — a banner of surrender every time they say “there’s no political consensus for a legal change” though one never sees a white flag above their door when facing other difficult political issues, like civil rights.

I will not put my hands up and surrender. No, I remain convinced that these shape-shifters at root don’t want any real change in the abortion situation, and changing the subject of tomorrow’s feast helps them to relegate what doesn’t really bother them. Because I am convinced of that, I intend to call out this bait-and-switch.

I have long maintained that, alongside January 22 (“Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of the Unborn”), the Catholic Church in the United States should adopt the Holy Innocents and this feast as co-patrons of the United States, considering both the magnitude of our offenses against life and our global impact in that regard. The first step in that regard, however, is making sure we are clear what the feast is about. Because, as I observed years ago, “the feast is celebrated in red because the children were dead, not because the Family fled.”


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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