Monday, December 28, 2020

King Herod and the Martyr Children

Why in the world would anyone ever think of killing a child?

If we look at the nature of Herod’s murderous decree and the way in which the Innocents suffered for Christ, we see that the persecution of the child results from a hatred of God, of human nature as the imago Dei, and of Christ who has a special love and welcome for all “little ones”: children, the elderly, the poor, the handicapped, the helpless, the oppressed.

Herod “the Great,” as he was called by some of his contemporaries, slaughtered the children of Christ’s age because he did not want to submit to the reign of Christ the King. He did not want anyone else to rule over him; he wanted only to rule himself—and, of course, to rule others. (As St. Thomas notes: “Mary and Joseph needed to be instructed concerning Christ’s birth before He was born, because it devolved on them to show reverence to the child conceived in the womb, and to serve Him even before He was born, ST III.36.2 ad 2.)

Then Herod, perceiving that he was deluded by the wise men, was exceeding angry, and sending killed all the men children that were in Bethlehem and in all the borders thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremias the prophet, saying: A voice in Rama was heard, lamentation and great mourning: Rachel bewailing her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not. (Gospel of the day)

The Roman Emperors who persecuted Christianity in its infancy stand in league with Herod: they sought to extinguish a religion that taught the supremacy of another king, another ruler, to whom all earthly knees must bend. If Christianity had not exacted this otherworldly allegiance, the Emperors would have left it quite alone. Any bizarre mystery cult or intellectual religion was palatable to the cosmopolitan taste of the Romans; as long as the citizens would tip a spoonful of incense into the fire to honor the divinity of the Emperor who commanded all earthly obedience, then they could go about worshiping or not worshiping whatever god they pleased. But Christianity declared that there was a higher kingship, a higher imperium: “You would have no power over me unless it had been given to you from above” (John 19, 11). To this higher authority, all earthly kings and kingdoms must pay homage.

It is truly meet and just, right and availing unto salvation that we should at all times and in all places give thanks unto Thee, O holy Lord, Father almighty and everlasting God. Because by the mystery of the Word made flesh the light of Thy glory hath shone anew upon the eyes of our mind: that while we acknowledge Him to be God seen by men, we may be drawn by Him to the love of things unseen. (Preface of the Nativity)

As if such a claim were not audacious enough, Christianity went further. It taught that all men who share in the mystery of Christ are adopted sons with Him, co-heirs of the kingdom of heaven—and as a consequence, that all men, from Emperor to slave, are fundamentally equal in the eyes of God. [1] Thus, while in the worldly order the slave negates himself before his master and the citizen falls before his Emperor, in the divine order inaugurated by Christ, the master serves his slave and the Emperor his citizens. [2] All must serve one another in humility and love. The most basic Christian identity is that of servanthood: Jesus tells his disciples that they are to distinguish themselves not as masters but as servants. [3]

Out of the mouth of infants and of sucklings, O God, Thou hast perfected praise, because of Thine enemies. Ps. O Lord our God, how admirable is Thy Name in the whole earth! (Introit)

At this late time in the history of the West, when Christianity has become so story-book familiar that its radical message fails to attract notice, can we begin to imagine how offensive this religion must have been to the pagans of ancient empires? We must renew in our minds the impression the Christian faith produced: it was a stumbling block, impious and rebellious. Indeed, it was something that had to be not only rejected but crushed, for it turned upside-down almost everything that fallen mankind takes for granted. In overthrowing the idols of paganism, Christ did more than introduce the worship of the true God; he destroyed an entire world, an entire philosophy of life, based upon the idolatry of power and self-will.

When we venerate martyrs, we venerate those who will not tip a spoonful of incense to the gods of this world; we honor those who by their example, by the offering of their life, prove to a world comfortably entangled in self-love that man is meant to live unto God alone and sacrifice all that he is in the service of others.

O God, whose praise the martyred Innocents on this day confessed, not by speaking, but by dying: destroy in us all the evils of sin, that our life also may proclaim in deeds Thy faith which our tongues profess. (Collect)

A man and woman who conceive a child are bound by natural and divine law to nurture and educate that child, or to give it up for adoption when they cannot take responsibility for its upbringing. They are bound to submit to the demands laid upon them by their children, just as Joseph and Mary devoted their lives to serving the Christchild, and as all faithful parents do when they sacrifice years to the rearing of their children. The child is like a king in that he must be served, but he is absolutely helpless, he is all neediness and dependence, he cannot even survive unless cared for by others. He begs to be welcomed; he needs and demands love. If there is one person whom all should love, it is the child, the infant, who is pure dependency and trust. Where is the human being who cannot find room in his heart to do this much?

Grant, we beseech Thee, almighty God, that the new birth of Thine only-begotten Son in the flesh may set us free, who are held by the old bondage under the yoke of sin.
(Commemoration of Christmas)

Herod was such a man. Just as there was no empty room in the inn of Bethlehem, there was no receptive room in his heart for another person to take precedence. All that Herod knew is that this promised child would threaten his lovable self, his selfish self-rule; and that was enough of a motive for him to send the soldiers on their horrible mission. In a mockery of his own rulership, Herod slaughtered the most innocent of his subjects, simply to ensure that none of them would grow up to manhood and ask of him some sacrifice of honor, freedom, or power. As St. Peter Chrysologus preaches:

Herod’s inhuman cruelty has exposed how far jealousy tends to go, and spite leaps, and envy makes its way. While this cruelty was jealously seeking the narrow limits of temporal reign, it strove to block the rise of the eternal King. … In his earthly fury he hunts Him whom he does not believe to be born from heaven. He moves the soldier’s camp to the bosoms of mothers, and attacks the citadel of love among their breasts. He tests his steel in those tender breasts, sheds milk before blood, causes the infants to undergo death before experiencing life, brings darkness on those just entering into the light of day…. In fear of a successor, he moved against his Creator. He slew the innocent babies, with intent to kill Innocence Himself. … Their tongue has been silent, their eyes have seen nothing, their hands have done nothing. No act has proceeded from them; then, whence do they have any guilt? They who did not yet know how to live got death. The period of their life did not protect them, nor did their age excuse them, nor their silence defend them. With Herod, the mere fact that they were born was their crime. [4]

The ultimate cause of abortion is that some people do not want to have another person “reigning” over them, another life making claims upon them, absorbing their time and their energy—in a word, making them servants. Whether it be parent, relative, doctor, nurse, counselor, politician, employer, or any other who is primarily responsible for the decision to abort or the collective pressures which bring it about, abortion objectively means: I, the adult with power over life and death, will have no ruler but myself alone; non serviam, I will not serve, I will not show mercy. This child is a nuisance, an inconvenience, a hardship, it will change the way we have to live our lives, and that, finally, is what we cannot allow.

The children abandoned by their parents and murdered by the abortionist are rejected, just as the infant boys were rejected, on account of Christ whom they represent. The Holy Innocents shed their blood in witness to Christ “who came to his own and his own received him not” (John 1, 11). Strikingly, St. Peter Chrysologus declaims:

Isaias had foretold that a virgin would bring forth the God of heaven, the King of the earth, the Lord of the regions, the renewer of the world, the slayer of death, the restorer of life, the author of perpetuity. The very occurrence of the Lord’s nativity proved how sad this was for worldly men, how frightening to kings … Fearing a successor, they tried to slay the Saviour of all men. At length, since they could not find Him, they devastated His country, mixed mothers’ milk with blood, and beat to death the infants of His own years. They dismembered the companions of His innocence, because they could not find for punishment sharers in any guilt of His. If they did all this after Christ was already born, what would they in their wild fury have done to Him when He was conceived? (Chrysologus, Sermons, 242)

The Holy Innocents did not meet their death freely confessing a Savior whom they knew; they played no active part in their own martyrdom. They were slaughtered for the same reason Christ was ultimately crucified: self-will, self-rule. That Christ disappointed Jewish hopes for a Messianic leader who would establish political self-rule takes on deeper significance when considered in relation to fallen man’s restless desire for worldly autonomy or autocracy, the desire to be the very rule of behavior, the measure of right and wrong. The kingdom of Christ is not of this world, His rulership is of an entirely different order (John 18, 33-38). There is only one rule of behavior, one measure of right and wrong—the Truth which Jesus himself is (John 14, 6).

These are they who were not defiled with women: for they are virgins. These follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth. 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.
(Epistle of the day)

As the chief priests, the people, and Pilate rejected Christ in the end, so Herod rejected Him in the beginning. The sudden friendship that sprang up between Pontius Pilate and Herod Antipas, son of the Herod who ordered the massacre of the Innocents, is not a mere coincidence recorded by Luke (23, 12) for the curious reader. Among other things, it demonstrates the ultimate identity of the first Herodian rejection of Christ the infant and the final Roman-Jewish rejection of Christ the man. The end circles around to meet up with the beginning, just as the legal endorsement of abortion logically necessitates the legal endorsement of euthanasia, or any “purification of unwanted social elements.”

In line with two kinds of persecutions, there are going to be two kinds of martyrs: those who are killed on account of professing a Gospel which their persecutors hate, and those, like John the Baptist, who are killed because their presence prevents someone else from living as he or she pleases. The latter kind of martyr, though not giving an explicitly Christian witness, is by no means unrelated to Christ. As victims of the insidious pride which has the kingdom of God as its formal object, their witness to the Messiah is not personal but cosmological. The Holy Innocents died a death of rejection by the world and its powers long before Christ died on the Cross, despised and rejected; they were killed out of the same hatred for God and for his law that will later propel the enemies of Christ and all who persecute Christians throughout history.

The witness given by a martyr is brought about by persecutors who torture or kill him precisely because he represents the Creator and the Redeemer to an ungrateful and sinful world. To be persecuted is obviously a necessary condition for martyrdom, but it is more. If a sleeping Catholic is attacked and killed by a Moslem out of hatred for the Christian faith, the former can be a martyr—not because he consciously bore witness, but because his very identity as a Catholic was the reason for which the other killed him; the motive specified the generic act of killing as an act of persecution. If, on the other hand, a Moslem judge ordered the death of a Christian because he had committed a serious crime, the Christian would not be a martyr by anyone’s definition. The motive of the killer thus figures crucially in the definition of any “passive” or “unconscious” martyr such as the Holy Innocents.

Although the victims of abortion are not martyrs because they are not incorporated into either the Old Covenant (as were the circumcised Hebrew children slaughtered by command of Herod) or the New Covenant (as would be children who are sacramentally baptized and thus capable of being killed in odium fidei), their death is nevertheless an implicit and analogous rejection of God the Creator and Christ the Redeemer. It is therefore not inappropriate to link the memory of these victims with the story of the Holy Innocents recounted each year, and to pray to God for the conversion of all who lend their support to the ever-crystallizing regime of Antichrist.

[1] See John 1, 12–13; Rom. 8, 14–23; Eph. 1, 5; Gal 4, 4–7; 1 John 3, 1; Acts 10, 34; Rom. 10, 12; Eph. 6, 8-9; Col 3, 11.
[2] See Phlm 1, 15–16; Eph. 6, 9; Col. 4,1; the same teaching is already present in Wis. 6, 2–10 and Sir. 32, 1–3.
[3] See Luke 9, 48; Eph. 5, 21; Phil. 2, 3; Matt. 20, 25–27; Mark 9, 34.
[4] Selected Sermons, trans. G. Ganss [New York: Fathers of the Church, 1953], 254–55; 256–57.

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