When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the Magi, he became furious. He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity 2 years old and under, in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the Magi. ―Matthew 2:16

The Three Wise Men (or Magi) who traveled from afar in search of a newborn king alarmed King Herod the Great. This irascible ruler of Judea was very easily threatened; he’d even had some of his own family members killed out of fury and suspicion. So, when he heard from the Magi that a new king had been born, Herod became deeply agitated.

Herod tried to trick the Magi by falsely expressing an interest in the new king, indicating that he would like to pay homage as well. He requested that the three men return to Jerusalem after they had found the child to let him know of the babe’s specific whereabouts within Bethlehem. Meanwhile, he was already forming a plan to eliminate this new threat.

When he realized that the Magi were not going to return with this information, he made a drastic decision: to have all baby boys aged two and younger in Bethlehem and the surrounding area killed. By this, he erroneously supposed (for Joseph would already have taken Mary and Jesus away from Bethlehem) he would be certain of killing the one destined to become king. This cruel action and the anguish it caused had been foreshadowed by the prophet Jeremiah’s words about Jacob’s wife, Rachel… weeping inconsolably for her children, who were no more.

These baby boys are considered by many to be the first martyrs of Christianity―the first to die for Christ. In the fifth century, a man named Aurelius Prudentius wrote a hymn honoring these babies. Below is one of many translations of Salvete, Flores Martyrum (Hail Flowers of the Martyrs):

Ye flowers of martyrdom, all hail!
Of rising morn pure blossoms frail!
By Jesu’s foe were ye downcast,
Like budding roses by the blast.

Lambs of the flock too early slain,
Ye first fruits of Christ’s bitter pain!
Close to His very altar, gay
With palms and crowns, ye now do play.

The Catholic Church remembers these little boys on Dec. 28. They are the patron saints of babies and children’s choirs. The following are some Bible verses to help you contemplate the sacrifice of The Holy Innocents.

  • Matthew 2:1–12
  • Jeremiah 31:15
  • Matthew 2:13–18