Monday, January 04, 2016

Liturgical Notes on the Feast of the Holy Innocents

In the Missal of St Pius V, the feast of the Holy Innocents is celebrated in violet vestments, rather than the red used on all the other feasts of Martyrs. It is also the only feast on which the Gloria in excelsis is omitted, and with it, the Te Deum in the Divine Office; furthermore, the Alleluia at Mass is replaced with a Tract, and Benedicamus Domino is said in place of Ite, missa est, as in Advent and Lent. This custom is attested in the 9th century by Amalarius of Metz, who writes in his treatise On the Ecclesiastical Offices, citing a rubric in his copy of the Gradual, “ ‘The day is passed, as it were, in sadness.’ The author of this Mass wishes us to be joined to the souls of the devout women who mourned and wept at the Innocents’ death.” (book 1, 47) He also attests that the feast of the Innocents was kept with an octave, as were those of St Stephen the First Martyr and St John the Evangelist. (book 4, 37 in fine).

The Massacre of the Innocents, by Tintoretto, 1582-87, from the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice.
Towards the end of the twelfth century, Bishop Sicard of Cremona notes that in addition, the “festive vestments”, i.e. the dalmatic and tunicle, were not worn on this day, and that these signs of mourning were observed because the Innocents, dying before the Resurrection of Christ had opened the gates of heaven, “went down to hell”, (i.e. the Limbo of the Fathers), but also “to represent the sadness of the mothers.” (Mitrale 9.8) He also says (which Amalarius does not) that the feast was not kept with these signs of mourning if it occurred on a Sunday, “because of their future glorification” in heaven.

Writing about a century later, William Durandus rejects Sicard’s idea that these customs refer to the Innocents’ descent to the Limbo of the Fathers, since if that were the case, the same would have to be observed with St John the Baptist. He does agree with Amalarius, citing his words very closely, and then explains that “the songs of joy” (i.e. the Gloria, Te Deum and Alleluia) are sung if the feast falls on Sunday, and always sung on its octave, “to signify the joy which they will receive on the eighth day, that is, in the resurrection. Although they did go down to (the Limbo of the Fathers), nevertheless they will rise with us in glory; for the octaves of feasts are celebrated in memory of the general resurrection, which they signify.” This is exactly the custom prescribed by the Missal of St Pius V and its late medieval antecedents. Durandus also knows of the custom “in many churches” that the dalmatic and tunicle were not worn, but this is not followed by the Tridentine Missal. (Rationale Divinorum Officiorum VII, 42, 11-12)

The Collect of the Innocents traditionally reads as follows: “O God, whose praise the Innocent Martyrs on this day confessed, not by speaking, but by dying, mortify in us all the evils of the vices; that our life also may proclaim in its manners Thy faith, which our tongues profess.” The phrase “mortify in us all the evils of the vices (omnia in nobis vitiorum mala mortifica)”, which has been removed in the Novus Ordo, refers to the traditional interpretation of the last line of Psalm 136 (137), in which the Psalmist curses the “daughter of Babylon” that had sent the children of Israel into exile: “Blessed be he that shall take and dash thy little ones against the rock.” For obvious reasons, this passage was used by the early Church’s critics as an example of evil behavior purportedly sanctioned by the Bible, as also by heretics who rejected the Old Testament, such as the Marcionites and Gnostics.

The Masses of the Holy Innocents and Pope St Sylvester I, in the Sacramentary of St Denis, (folio 26v); Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Latin 2290
The 3rd century biblical scholar Origen, whose massive corpus of Scriptural interpretation (now largely lost) was devoted in large measure to answering such critics, explains the meaning of this passage in a spiritual sense as follows.
(T)he little ones of Babylon (which signifies ‘confusion’) are those troublesome sinful thoughts which arise in the soul, and he who subdues them by striking, as it were, their heads against the firm and solid strength of reason and truth, is the man who dashes the little ones against the stones; and he is therefore truly blessed. God may therefore have commanded men to destroy all their vices utterly, even at their birth, without having enjoined anything contrary to the teaching of Christ.” (Contra Celsum, 7.22)
This explanation is accepted and elaborated upon by several of the Latin Fathers. St Hilary refers to “vices – vitia” eight times in his Treatise on this Psalm; he would also seem to be the first to associate the rock against which the vices are dashed in their “infancy” with the rock which St Paul says was Christ. (1 Corinthians 10, 4). He is followed in this by St Jerome in his 22nd Epistle, written to his spiritual daughter Eustochium, and by St Augustine (Enarratio in Ps. 136). Hilary and Jerome in particular were quite familiar with the Greek Fathers, and especially the famous Origen. Continuing this tradition, St Gregory the Great writes in his Commentary on the Penitential Psalms, “We dash our little ones upon the rock, when we mortify illicit impulses (or ‘passions’) as they arise, by directing the mind towards the imitation of Christ. For it is written ‘But the rock was Christ.’ ”

Of course, the actual children who died in Bethlehem at the hands of King Herod’s soldiers do not represent our vices, and their death does not represent the mortification of our vices. The parallel between the Psalm and the Gospel lies in the fact that in both cases, Christ brings redemption and glory out of an event full of horror and sadness, as He will later do with His own death. In the Old Testament, this is realized only in a spiritual and allegorical way; in the New Testament, the story of the Incarnation, it is realized in the very flesh in which Christ is born and dies as a man, and which He shares with the other sons of Bethlehem. The curse of the Psalm becomes an exhortation to virtue, the words that precede it, “blessed shall he be who shall repay thee thy payment which thou hast paid us,” replaced by Christ’s command, “Bless them that curse you.” The murder of the Innocents in Bethlehem, a sin that cries to Heaven for vengeance, will bring them to glory in Heaven, after the murder of another Innocent opens its gates and effects the redemption of the human race.

This may also be the reason why the Roman Rite developed the custom, which is unique to it, of referring to these children as “the Holy Innocents”, since they did not live long enough to commit any sin, and never lost or struggled to keep the innocence which adults must preserve or regain by the mortification of the vices. In other rites, they are referred to simply as a “children” or “infants.” In the Epistle of their Mass, Apocalypse 14, 1-5, St John the Evangelist, whose feast is kept the previous day, sees “a Lamb (also a symbol of innocence) stood upon Mount Sion, and with him an hundred forty-four thousand, having his name, and the name of his Father, written on their foreheads. … these were purchased from among men, the firstfruits to God and to the Lamb: And in their mouth there was found no lie; for they are without spot before the throne of God.” Medieval authors in the West, having no idea of the true size of Bethlehem at the time of Christ’s birth, often assumed on the basis of this reading that their number must have been 144,000, but the Byzantine tradition says they were 14,000. (The whole population of the city today is just over 25,000.)

A Greek icon of the Massacre of the Innocents, ca. 1580
Various liturgical scholars, including Fr Frederick Holweck, the author of the Catholic Encyclopedia article on the Holy Innocents, have noted that before the reform of St Pius V, their feast was kept at the middle rank of “Semidouble” in the Use of Rome, rather than the highest rank of Double. None of them, as far as I can tell, has noted that it was the only Semidouble feast kept with an octave. These terms derive from the custom of semidoubling the antiphons in the Office, i.e., not singing them in full, but only intoning them before each psalm or canticle. This may seem rather odd to us now, but was historically far more common than doubling, which became the norm less than 60 years ago. Since both doubling and the keeping of octaves were traditionally reserved for the greatest solemnities, this anomaly may also have been thought of as a sign of mourning.

Holweck also states, incorrectly, that the pre-Tridentine Breviary sang the hymns of Christmas at the Office of the Innocents; in point of fact, the Common hymns of Several Martyrs were used. The Pian Breviary, which is in most regards extremely conservative, introduced two new proper hymns for the feast, stanzas from the Epiphany hymn of the 5th century poet Prudentius; the first three of these are sung at Matins, and the other two at Lauds, to be repeated at Vespers. The latter hymn has become famous in connection with a story about St Philip Neri. He lived for many years at the Roman church of San Girolamo della Carità, right across the street from the Venerable English College, many of whose young students died as martyrs in England under Queen Elizabeth I. He used therefore to greet them with the first line of the hymn “Salvete, flores Martyrum! – Hail ye flowers of the martyrs!”

Salvete flores martyrum, / Quos lucis ipso in limine / Christi insecutor sustulit, / Ceu turbo nascentes rosas.
All hail, ye little Martyr flowers, / Sweet rosebuds cut in dawning hours! / When Herod sought the Christ to find / Ye fell as bloom before the wind.

Vos prima Christi victima, / Grex immolatorum tener, / Aram sub ipsam simplices / Palma et coronis luditis.
First victims of the Martyr bands, / With crowns and palms in tender hands, / Around the very altar, gay / And innocent, ye seem to play.

Jesu, tibi sit gloria, / Qui natus es de Virgine, / Cum Patre et almo Spiritu, / In sempiterna saecula. Amen.
All honor, laud, and glory be, / O Jesu, Virgin-born to thee; / All glory, as is ever meet / To Father and to Paraclete. Amen. (English translation by Msgr. Hugh Thomas Henry and J. M. Neale.)

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: