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The Holy Innocents

Today (Dec. 28th/29th) the Christian Church recognizes the deaths of the Holy Innocents who died in the place of the Christ child in Bethlehem at the order of Herod and recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. These innocent boy children are thus understood as the first martyrs in the Church.

The historic validity of this event has been questioned by many, since it has little early corroboration from secular histories. But such criticism has little weight against the deep influence the story has had upon the hearts and minds of Christians in the Church since the beginning.

Here we see not merely the immorality surrounding the loss of innocent life, but the profound and deep sorrow of mothers for their lost children. Such a grief can hardly be understood merely through reason, and thus the Church has always had recourse toward other modes of representation. In a sinful world, we are often unable to feel anything (sorrow in this case) very deeply; and such is the sad consequence of not loving anything deeply. And yet it is exactly sacred art which helps reach us where words and arguments fail.

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It is striking just how many artists have found this massacre of the innocents  particularly worthy of their masterful efforts, both through painting and in music. Many painters have focused upon the vicious and animal like brutality of Herod’s soldiers in their rabid effort to destroy the Christ child. One might observe in passing that traditional Catholic art has had no problem, nor shied away from, showing the peculiar perversions of masculinity within (ostensibly) pagan patriarchal society. The slaughter of the innocent (boys) is a case in point.

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Many others highlight the grief and despair of the women and mothers, especially in the person of “Rachael weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted” (Jer. 31:15).

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Poetically, many have doubtless heard of the Coventry Carol as a Christmas song, but perhaps fewer realize it is actually a song about the massacre of the holy innocents.  I have placed the words below, and provided links to several musical settings (performed by Voces8): Philips Stopford’s beautiful Lully, Lulla, Lullay; and Barnaby Smith’s haunting Coventry Carol.

Lullay, Thou little tiny Child
By, by, lully, lullay
Lullay, Thou little tiny Child
By, by, lully, lullay
O sisters too, how may we do
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we sing
By, by, lully, lullay
Herod the king, in his raging
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight
All young children to slay
That woe is me, poor Child for Thee
And ever morn and day
For thy parting neither say nor sing
By, by, lully, lullay

The Medieval Professor View All

"We need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.” — C.S. Lewis

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