Why remember the Holy Innocents during Christmas?

Christmas is a time of love, joy, giving, and peace.  Yet here on the fourth day of Christmas we have a holy day even more depressing than St. Stephen’s day: the Holy Innocents.  For those of you not familiar with the term, the “holy innocents” are the children in Bethlehem who were slaughtered by order of King Herod after the Magi failed to report back to him about the “newborn king.”  The story is recounted in Matthew 2:16-18.

This is probably one of the most depressing stories in the Bible.  It’s such an evil act of a paranoia by a power-hungry ruler!  And recent years have given us opportunities to experience this atrocity hitting home all too closely: the Columbine shooting back in 1999 (was it really that long ago?) and the shooting in Newtown CT now two weeks ago are national tragedies that weigh heavily in the American memory.

Having this day in the calendar to remember such atrocities, I think, proves useful in helping us to deal the unthinkable.  If we as Christians are, after all, supposed to be the light of Christ to the world, it does nobody any good if we’re rendered just as speechless and confused as everyone else when evil rears its ugly head on such a scale.  Holy Innocents Day helps us connect the experience of evil in reality (present & historical) to the Gospel narrative and the heart of our spirituality.  Consider these prayers written for this day:

BCP, 1979

We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethelehem by King Herod.  Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of all evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord…

Roman Catholic

Heavenly Father, whose children suffered at the hands of Herod, though they had done no wrong: by the suffering of your Son and by the innocence of our lives frustrate all evil designs and establish your reign of justice and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord…


BCP, 1928

O ALMIGHTY God, who out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast ordained strength, and madest infants to glorify thee by their deaths; Mortify and kill all vices in us, and so strengthen us by thy grace, that by the innocency of our lives, and constancy of our faith even unto death, we may glorify thy holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord…


Common Worship, 2000

O God, whom the Holy Innocents confessed and proclaimed on this day, not by speaking but by dying, grant, we pray, that the faith in your which we confess with our lips may also speak through our manner of life. Pour forth, we beseech you, O Lord, your grace into our hearts, that we, to whom the Incarnation of Christ your Son was made known by the message of an Angel, may by his Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of his Resurrection. Through our Lord Jesus Christ…

But we still have the question, why celebrate this during Christmas?  Two reasons come to mind.

The first is obvious: this event took place (relatively) soon after the birth of Christ.  When you’re reading St. Matthew’s gospel book, the story of the holy innocents follows right on the heels of the nativity story.  Sure, it takes place after what we celebrate on the Epiphany (January 6th), but the Epiphany starts off a new season with a new focus, so it makes sense to keep Holy Innocents Day within the twelve days of Christmas.

Secondly, I think it actually enhances the significance of the Christmas holiday season.  It’s one thing to celebrate love, joy, giving, and peace when you’re focused on the ultimate gift that God gave mankind – himself as a baby – but when you stop to consider how horribly evil our world can be, the amazing-ness of God’s gift in Christ is all the more poignant.  As St. Paul put it, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”  By remembering the Holy Innocents within this short and happy Christmastide, we shed a little more reality both on how amazing God’s gift of Christ is, and how undeserving we were of that gift.

The only problem left for me right now is how to refer to this day.  Saying “happy holy innocents day!” seems wrong.  I mean, it’s happy in that it increases the happiness of Christmas, but today’s actual commemoration seems to evoke a more penitential character than a celebration.  However this is resolved, I commend the four prayers to us all as samplings of how to deal with this remembrance and every subsequent act of unspeakable evil that we hear about in this world.


About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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