Today, the fourth day of Christmas, is also the Feast of the Holy Innocents. This day casts a shadow of sorrow in the midst of a great festival of joy. It provides a dark chiaroscuro to the portrait of the young Messiah. Before Jesus is more than a toddler, his family has to flee, to escape a fear-maddened tyrant’s order to slaughter every male child under two years old in the neighborhood of Bethlehem. Matthew quotes from Jeremiah—sometimes called “the weeping prophet”—“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.” (Jer. 31:15, Matt. 2:18)
You definitely won’t find that on a Christmas card. But it is part of the story of Christmas.
As Saint John writes, “The light shines in the darkness” (John 1:5). Today we are reminded just how dark that darkness can be.
Several years ago, however, I looked back at Jeremiah 31—and I was surprised to discover that the passage is not one of weeping and despair at all! Here are the next two verses: “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.’” This is a prophetic reminder of the darkness that had come upon Israel as a whole, the experience of exile from their homeland, the sundering of families. But it is also a prophetic proclamation of God’s promise of restoration and return.
When Saint Matthew quotes this verse, he is telling us that Jesus is not only the new Moses who escapes a tyrant’s attack against infant boys, and who will deliver His people from slavery into freedom. This child Jesus is also the one who will, finally, end the exile of the sons and daughters of Abraham, and bring them home singing.
“The light shines in the darkness.” At Christmas, we celebrate the hope of salvation.
But something about this might still seem to be too easy. The innocents whose death we remember today were not just symbolic representatives of the narrative of Israel. They were real boys. They had real mothers. They were really murdered. It’s not enough to say that Israel is being restored. These mothers, these “Rachels,” are left bereft, weeping, refusing to be comforted. Still asking: has God forgotten us? Has God forgotten our sons?
The only answer to that sorrow is a Savior who ultimately does not escape the tyrant, but who also descends into the realm of death, into the shadow and darkness that has swallowed those children, and so many others.
The only Savior who can make the death of the Holy Innocents part of the salvation story is a Savior who fulfills God’s word through the prophet Jeremiah in a far deeper way—who breaks the chains of bondage to sin and death, and destroys their power, and who leads back a host of exiles, singing.
The Feast of the Holy Innocents is a vital part of the Christmas story, because it shows us the true hope of these holy days: light that shines even in the darkness of the grave. The promise of Christmas is a promise that finds its fulfillment on Easter morning.
Rachel and her children are not abandoned or forgotten. In Isaiah, the mourning daughter of Israel says “The LORD has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me.” But listen to what God says in return: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” (Isaiah 49:14-16, and see the rest of the passage!)
The Holy Innocents are martyrs, in the original sense of the word: they bear witness. By their death, they show us the way of hope. They bear witness to the true story of Christmas, the claim of the Gospel: The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not—and cannot—overcome it.
* Although the Holy Innocents will never show up on a modern Christmas card, there is a traditional carol commemorating this day, the Coventry Carol.