Holy Innocents: The Dark Side of Christmas


When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”

–Matthew 2:16-18

The Feast of Holy Innocents (December 28) comes right on the heels of Christmas, and reminds us that Christmas had a dark side.  The business of getting Jesus Christ into our world was not a tidy thing, and in fact it came at a horrible cost.  Many people had their lives turned upside down, and many lost their lives altogether.

The Holy Innocents–the boys aged 2 and under who lost their lives in Herod’s rapacious rampage–are the first Christian martyrs.  Tradition has put their number anywhere between 14,000 and 144,000, but modern scholars put it between 10 and 20 because Bethlehem was such a small town.  Josephus mentions this incident, but gives it only passing mention compared to other atrocities committed by Herod.

When we think of such things, we relegate them to an ancient, uncivilized era when barbarous, megalomaniacal rulers roved the earth and could cause thousands to lose their lives at their very whim.  But surely we live in a more civilized and enlightened age.  Surely in our modern era of diplomacy, we are past all that now.

Not so fast, my friend.

With 100 people martyred for their faith every month, Christians rank as the most persecuted religious group according to the relief agency Open Doors, which provides support for Christians and Christian communities worldwide.  The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that Christians suffer some form of persecution in 133 countries, or two-thirds of the world’s countries.

And on Christmas Day, 35 people were killed in bombings near Christian churches in Iraq, according to the BBC.

More troubling than this, however, is the fact that almost half of Iraq’s Christian population has fled the country since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Seems our war on terrorism has had some unintended consequences.

And the Church remains silent.

Well, not completely.

Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, alluded to this in his Christmas sermon:

Today, singing of Bethlehem, we see injustices in Palestine and Israel, where land is taken or rockets are fired, and the innocent suffer.

We see injustice in the ever more seriously threatened Christian communities of the Middle East. The Prince of Wales highlighted their plight last week. Even this morning a church in Baghdad, where there have been Christians since the 1st century, was bombed and 15 more people testified to their faith with their lives. Christians in the region are attacked and massacred, driven into exile from an area  in which their presence has always been central, undoubted, essential, richly contributing, faithful.

Michael Newnham at Phoenix Preacher is strongly behind the push to free Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-American pastor and US citizen who is currently being detained in Iran.  But while we in the free world do a fabulous job of supporting our own, we ignore issues and articles such as this one about the massacre of Christians in the Syrian civil war.

Yet when some bearded old man who is adept at making duck calls gets suspended from his reality show for spouting his views about men’s anuses, it has the full attention of American evangelicals.

Hello misplaced priorities.

American Christians by and large are slow to realize that in many parts of the world, Christians still suffer under Herod’s rapacious rule, now just as much as then.

Rachel still weeps for her children.  Why not we?