Holy Innocents (The Martyrdom of the Holy Innocents, Gustave Dore)

The Martyrdom of the Holy Innocents (Gustave Doré)

 

Herod the Great, appointed ruler (ethnarch) of the Jews by the Romans in 40 BC, kept the peace in Palestine for 37 years. His ruthless control, coupled with genuine ability, has been recorded by the Jewish historian Josephus, who describes him as “a man of great barbarity towards everyone.” Though he identified himself publicly as a practicing Jew, Herod was an Idumaean (an Edomite), the son of Antipater the Idumaean, a high-ranking official under the Jewish ethnarch Hyrcanus II, the last legal Hasmonean rule of Judaea, whose daughter Herod married. Because he was not himself a Hasmonean and was not ethnically a Jew, Herod was continually in fear of losing his throne. It is not surprising that the Magi’s report of the birth of an infant King of the Jews (Matthew 2) caused him fear and anger. Although the event is not recorded in other sources, the story of the massacre of the Innocents is completely in keeping with what is known of Herod’s character.

To protect himself against being supplanted by an infant king, Herod ordered the slaughter of all male children under two years of age in Bethlehem and the surrounding region. We do not know how many were killed, but the Church has always honored these innocent children as martyrs. Augustine of Hippo called them, “buds, killed by the frost of persecution the moment they showed themselves.”

adapted from Lesser Feasts and Fasts

The Collect

We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Lesson
Jeremiah 31:15-17

Thus says the Lord:
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.”

Thus says the Lord:
“Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears,
for there is a reward for your work,
declares the Lord,
and they shall come back from the land of the enemy.
There is hope for your future,
declares the Lord,
and your children shall come back to their own country.

Psalm 128
Nisi quia Dominus

If the LORD had not been on our side, *
let Israel now say;

If the LORD had not been on our side, *
when enemies rose up against us;

Then would they have swallowed us up alive *
in their fierce anger toward us;

Then would the waters have overwhelmed us *
and the torrent gone over us;

Then would the raging waters *
have gone right over us.

Blessed be the LORD! *
he has not given us over to be a prey for their teeth.

We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowler; *
the snare is broken, and we have escaped.

Our help is in the Name of the LORD, *
the maker of heaven and earth.

The Epistle
Revelation 21:1-7

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son.

The Gospel
Matthew 2:13-18

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

__________________________________________________

The scripture texts for the Lesson, the Epistle, and Gospel are taken from the English Standard Version Bible. The Collect and Psalm are taken from the Book of Common Prayer (1979).

Since December 28 falls on a Sunday this year, the feast of the Holy Innocents is transferred to December 29, taking precedence over the commemoration of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury.

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