Friday, December 27, 2013

Herod and the Holy Innocents: Why God Allowed It

Note to the reader: I renamed this a few times. Trying to find a title that captures the content.

When God summoned the Magi to Jerusalem through the star of Jacob, he triggered a series of
events. One such event was the massacre of boys- two years old and under –in the little town of Bethlehem. The Greek Liturgy numbers these innocent victims at 14,000. But most historians conclude that this improbable because the population of Bethlehem was estimated to be at 1,000 at the time of Christ’s birth. However, Josephus, a first century Jewish historian and a few of the early Church Fathers, contended that this decree by King Herod the Great was carried out during the month of March during Passover when thousands of Jewish pilgrims were required to visit the Temple. Bethlehem is only five miles away; perhaps, the last rest area for travelers. If this be the case, then perhaps the Holy Innocents could have numbered in the hundreds or thousands.

In any case, when we consult historical sources, we discover that King Herod coveted political power so much that he didn’t even spare his own family members when they got in the way. Some early accounts allege that King Herod the Great asked permission of Caesar Augustus if he could put three of his sons to death. Such measures on the local level required permission from the Roman Emperor. In response to this, Augustus is reported to have said, “It were better to be Herod’s pig than his son, because the Jews do not eat pork.” Indeed, Herod’s pigs fared much better than Alexander, Aristobulus, and Antipater. The former were spared while the latter, namely, his sons, were put to death. Evidently, King Herod’s sons were a threat to his power.

Moreover, it was believed that during the time his son’s were being strategically eliminated, the King Herod (who was half Jewish) decided to eliminate another threat: the new born Messiah. St. John Chrysostom offered his two cents worth in speculating why this might have been the case. He said, “Herod, being aware of this prophecy, applied the oracle to himself in order to strengthen his kingdom.” However, when the Three Kings from the Orient (i.e. the Magi), guided by the star, came looking for the Christ-child, he knew his attempts to appropriate the prophecy from the book of Micah to himself would be challenged. Even so, what could a young boy possibly do to upset King Herod’s throne?

St. Gregory gave the answer when he said this: “When the King of heaven was born, the earthly king was troubled because, indeed, terrestrial exaltation is confounded when celestial greatness is disclosed.” In other words, what King Herod intuitively anticipated, the Blessed Virgin Mary had prophesied. When she visited St. Elizabeth several months earlier, she exclaimed in her canticle that God will “throw down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly.” To be sure, not by military might or political rule would Christ “throw down the rulers from their thrones,” but paradoxically, it is by lifting up the lowly!

Just a side note before proceeding any further: It just so happened that a few days after his son, Antipater, was eliminated and after his decree to massacre the Holy Innocents was issued, King Herod was said to have died a painful death. His thirty seven year reign came to an abrupt end. This is historical lesson is worth pondering: Political power is always short-lived when balanced against eternity. It is like vapor. It appears and then it is gone before you know it. Christ didn’t come to rule as Caesar Augustus or King Herod did. No, that was too insignificant for him. As Pope Leo the Great said, “Christ seizes not thy royalty, nor would the Lord of the universe be contented with thy petty scepter.”

Christ came to reign over hearts. He came to save souls. And in doing so, he raised up the human person regardless of social or political status. For this very reason, Christ’s divine authority has always been a threat to despots and power-hungry rulers! To reveal the God-given dignity of the individual and to claim ownership over every soul as God does, this puts limitations on the power of the State.

When our ultimate trust is in the Lord, dependence on the State tends to wither. Even the Psalms bids us not to put our trust in mortals and rulers: “Better to take refuge in the LORD than to put one’s trust in mortals. Better to take refuge in the LORD than to put one’s trust in princes.” And when the interests of God are tied up with the narrow ambitions of politicians, it is the latter that always suffers. Alexis de Tocqueville said it well: “When a religion founds its empire upon the desire of immortality which lives in every human heart, it may aspire to universal dominion; but when it connects itself to a government…it forfeits the hope of reigning over all.” But I digress.

Bearing witness to great truths is not just a matter of words and speeches. If it was, the cost would be too little. Rather, great truths shine the brightest when mortals have to suffer for it. Perhaps this is why the Lord drew the Magi to himself even knowing that this would result in the Bethlehem massacre. “It was prophetically declared,” St Leo argues, “that the Church of God should increase by the cruel fury of her persecutors…” In fact, Our Lord and his entourage of martyrs would bear witness to God’s heavenly kingdom with their very lives. And the early Christians were quite proud of this heritage. They would often say, “To act bravely, is the part of a Roman; to suffer bravely is the part of a Christian.”

From a distance, we Christians can recount the glories of martyrdom. And to be sure, it is inspiring. But it must be born in mind what a tragedy that must have been for the parents in Bethlehem to witness the murder of their young boys. They didn’t ask to be a part of God’s plan. And when the toll of human suffering hits close to home, as it did with the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, it is exceedingly difficult for reconcile such atrocities with God’s wise counsel. Yet, it has been the instrument God has used to give evidence of reality of heaven, of the dignity of the soul and of the greatness of God himself.

From the vantage point of the world and all of those who covet political power, the feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28th is a sign of weakness and defeat. But it is imperative that we know how God works. What is weak in the eyes of humans, is all-powerful in God’s hands. As St. Paul said, “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something…” (I Corinthians 1:27-28)

It is those holy, innocent children from Bethlehem who sit at Christ's feet in heaven. It is they who will judge the despots of the world with our Lord. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Universal Church not only honors them, but beseeches their intercession and favor on us mortals.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are my own
and not necessarily reflective of
any organization I works for.