The Feast of the Holy Innocents Is About Murder, Not Immigration

The Church’s vestments on Dec. 28 are red because blood was shed, not because the Holy Family fled.

Niccolò Bambini (1651-1736), “The Massacre of the Innocents”
Niccolò Bambini (1651-1736), “The Massacre of the Innocents” (photo: Public Domain)

Dec. 28 was the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Three days after Christmas, the Church recalls those little boys of Bethlehem “two years of age and under” killed by the soldiers of Herod who, jealous for his throne, sought in that way to eliminate threats to his political future. 

The Gospel of the day (Matthew 2:13-18) recounts how Joseph is warned of the impending infanticide in a dream and, at God’s instruction, flees to Egypt. It then recalls how Herod, convinced he was “deceived” by the Magi, takes matters into his own hands by killing the entire relevant male infant population of Bethlehem, releasing a lamentation foretold by Jeremiah.

The theme of the day is the massacre and martyrdom of the Holy Innocents. Herod uses death as a tool of state policy to protect his political position. Because of that danger of Jesus being murdered, the Holy Family flees. 

For generations, the Church’s focus on this day was the abominable depths to which a human being could sink to entertain the killing of innocent babies. The revulsion that Herod’s massacre elicited finds expression in the teaching of Vatican II which, examining the “signs of the times,” explicitly labels abortion and infanticide as “unspeakable” crimes (Gaudium et spes, no. 51) that “dishonor the Creator” (ibid., no. 27).

I mention all this because I think there is a subtle but deliberate effort to shift away from these inconvenient truths. On Dec. 28, for example, Father James Martin tweeted: 

“Today on the Feast of the Holy Innocents, we read how the Holy Family fled from Herod's persecution, left their homeland and took refugee [sic] in Egypt (Mt 2). Today remember families who are migrants and refugees, and internally displaced people, like Jesus, Mary and Joseph.”

Papal biographer Austin Ivereigh tweeted:

“Today’s Gospel, and its OT hinterland, are filled with refugees fleeing persecution, or ppl threatened by foreigners, & of violence against innocent strangers. Thank you to all who like @M_RSection @JesuitRefugee, @JRSUK welcome, protect, promote, and integrate migrants.”

Sorry to break it to you both, but the Feast of the Holy Innocents is not about immigration policy.

Vatican II taught that Catholics should read the “signs of the times” and give witness amidst them. Since 1973, more than 63 million preborn American babies have been slaughtered. The global figure is higher, and there are powerful political forces in the United States and the world seeking to ensconce that culture of death as a national and even international “right.”

Almost two years have passed since Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s infamous interview in which he refused to reject a Virginia Delegate’s bill to statutorily protect third-trimester abortions, even suggesting infanticide for handicapped newborns (after appropriate “discussion”). During those two years, multiple efforts to enact clear federal statutory protections for infants born alive during an attempted abortion were blocked dozens of times.

The United States is on the verge of having a leader who, while painting himself as a Catholic, has done nothing in his 48-year federal political career to roll back any part of that abortion liberty and even proposes to expand it (e.g., by repealing the Hyde Amendment). His sole “witness” to opposing this “unspeakable crime,” in an era that calls for speaking about it very loudly — “shouting your abortion” — is his purported “personal opposition” to it.

No other rights matter very much if one is dead, which is why the right to life is the civil rights issue of our day. A government has no more fundamental duty than to protect life: a government that feigns ignorance of whom belongs within the circle of its legal protection (“we need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins”) while in practice not protecting those lives fails in its very raison d’être. The struggle between the cultures of life and death is the decisive sign of contradiction of our age.

Martin’s tweet is not necessarily wrong in itself (Ivereigh is more fact-challenged) but, as the late Paul Harvey used to say, what’s missing is “the rest of the story.” The focus of the Feast, as its title makes clear, is the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents, the brutal killing of babies. The Flight into Egypt is a corollary. It is a consequence of that deed, not the main event.

I called out Martin and Ivereigh on their dodge-and-deflect substitutions. Martin responded first by quoting the beginning of the Gospel in defense of a focus on the Flight into Egypt. I parried by noting the Gospel also mentions Joseph was informed to flee “in a dream,” but that doesn’t focus the Gospel about mystical communication or dream interpretation. Martin then noted he is “pro-life, which means I advocate for both the child in the womb and the migrant at the border,” essentially trotting out a version of the “consistent ethic of life” that in practice throws killing and border control into a common basket. Strange, Martin’s tweet urges us to “remember families who are migrants” but forgets infants who are murdered.

As I have previously pointed out, even Vatican II does not do this. The Council specifically mentions abortion and infanticide twice, once including it among other violations of human dignity but once explicitly highlighting those two forms of killing as “unspeakable crimes” against God and man. By singling those two forms of killing out for explicit mention, the Second Vatican Council clearly treats them — to borrow contemporary terminology — as “preeminent.”

Yet that is what I fear Martin and Ivereigh want to fudge. 

The Feast of the Holy Innocents is not about Jesus, Mary, and Joseph being forced to emigrate. It is about a child-centric killing spree. The Church’s vestments on that feast are red because blood was shed, not because the Holy Family fled. 

Ivereigh’s tweet betrays a similar silence when it comes to shading out the real victims (who, as with Martin, are victims of “persecution,” conveniently using a generic word to blur the line between flight and murder). Pace Ivereigh, the Feast’s Gospel is hardly as “filled with refugees” (three) as with murder victims. One wonders who are the “people threatened by foreigners.” Jesus, Mary and Joseph are in their own country. The foreign Magi are hardly as threatening as threatened, having “been warned in a dream” not to return to Herod. The one foreigner who’s actually threatening is Herod: he was an Idumean who fought his whole life to be regarded as “King of the Jews” and, by the time of Jesus, had spent nearly three decades in that role. And what “violence against innocent strangers?” The chief victims — Bethlehem’s boys — were no strangers in their hometown, nor was Jesus a “stranger” in his own land. The Magi had escaped violence. So, frankly, what is Ivereigh talking about?

The truth is that the focus of this Feast is uncomfortable to the politically correct who want to make nice with contemporary political leaders whose political platform pledges fealty to today’s slaughter of the innocent. It’s better to change the subject rather than engage in “culture wars” or “fixate on pelvic issues.” The truth is, in America today as in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, making the lives of the innocent means to protect political considerations was an “unspeakable crime,” opposition to which then and now was a matter of elemental social justice. 

I have long believed the Catholic bishops of the United States should bear clear witness to the moral challenge of our times that is abortion and the broader life issues by (a) composing a Votive Mass for the Protection of Life and (b) making it liturgically normative for Dec. 28 and Jan. 22 (the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, designated in the Catholic Church of the United States as “the Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children.” I urge this Mass in lieu of the “Mass of Giving Thanks to God for the Gift of Human Life” (celebrated in white vestments) because, as a society we are doing anything but giving thanks for life. This festive note obscures the social responsibility and penitential solidarity we all share for a national community that so cavalierly does not respect human life. That note needs especially to be sounded on the approaching 50th anniversary of Roe and now clearly also seems needed to save the Feast of the Holy Innocents from a thematic bait-and-switch.