Doubt, Pain and Infanticide (Or Why The Feast of the Holy Innocents Is My Favorite Feast Day)

Featured image: François-Joseph Navez, Massacre of the Innocents

Today, December 28, is the Feast of the Holy Innocents. As I shared with the glorious pilgrims in the Coming Home eCourse, it’s my favorite feast day of the year. It combines Christmastide and doubt, the hope of the resurrection and all of our questions, and here, with a little sneak peak into the course materials, is why:

(A Note On The Image Above: I chose this painting of all of the paintings of the massacre of the innocents because of its horrible peacefulness. Although I shied away from the more active scenes—and then ruefully noted my own inability to confront the real evil of this day—there is something so chilling and painful about Navez’s rendition, with the action off to the back and the grief front and center, that speaks to this commemoration well.)

You may think me morbid, but the Feast of the Holy Innocents is one of my favorite feast days of the entire Church calendar. It’s not because of the brutality of what it commemorates, but because of what this particular feast makes space for both in my heart and in the worship and life of the Church as a whole.

In Matthew 2:16 the Gospel writer tells of Herod’s rage at being deceived by the magi and his subsequent order to have all male children under two years (which at the time would have most likely meant age one and younger) in Bethlehem and surrounding area killed. This horrific act was completely consistent with Herod’s character (it is well documented historically that he had his own sons killed), and is a terrible reminder of the cost of pursuing goodness and life in the face of great evil.

The Church recognizes those children killed by Herod as martyrs, whether or not their parents were believers, because they themselves took the place of the one Herod was after—Jesus. Over the years, the killings grew in the imagination of the Church, with numbers being cited in the hundreds of thousands, while the reality of the population of Bethlehem and area indicates that the number of children killed was between six and twenty.

Whatever the actual number of children, December 28 is a day clothed with the horror of lives cut off, death visiting those who had lived so short a time and so deserved to be protected and cherished.

Over the years, my own celebration of this feast day has come to be quite dear to me. While God can take my rage, my questions, my anger, my lack of understanding of His ways any day of the year (and often does), it heartens me that there is a day in the Church calendar where the whole assembly of believers is encouraged to cry out the anguished question: WHY?

On this day, I set aside time to let those questions and aches in my heart have full-throated voice. I weep and cry out WHY, LORD? in the company of the great cloud of witnesses who also weep for those holy innocents who died so long ago. I let my mourning be deep and angry and real this day—as I can any day with God—because He is big enough, powerful enough, and, most importantly, good and loving enough to hold receive these questions hurled at him from me. It is a time for me to mourn and wail for those things unmourned this year—or unmourned in my soul in general—or to continue mourning those things if necessary. It is an acknowledgement both that God can take it, and that His ways are mysteriously larger than mine.

Consider spending some time on December 28 to hold these truths of God’s story and your own together before Him.

Prayer for the Feast of the Holy Innocents:

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 You 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, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.