The Feast of the Holy Innocents is a rather shocking celebration. It is painful and hard even to think about such a brutal crime as the slaughter of those little boys of Bethlehem. But, why, oh why, for God’s sake, must we celebrate that sad memory on this Fourth Day of Christmas?
And yet, here it stands, precisely for God’s sake, for the proclamation of His Glory, and for the sake of our salvation. In fulfillment of several Old Testament Prophecies, under the good and gracious will of God, and at His Word, the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents is part and parcel of the Christmas story — no less so than the Shepherds of St. Luke’s Gospel, or the Magi who have just departed for their own country by another way.
We observe this day — indeed, we celebrate this Feast — not out of any morbid fascination with the gruesome details of Herod’s wickedness. This is not Herod’s story, in any case; nor was he the one calling the shots, after all, his evil machinations notwithstanding. No, it is in the humility of repentant faith, under the Cross of Christ our Lord, that, on this day also, we confess His Cross and Passion — His holy and precious blood, and His innocent suffering and death — to be the real heights of His divine glory and the living fountain of peace on earth and good will toward men.
This is what Christmas was and is about: the birth of the one Child who was born to die for us all.
The Feast of the Holy Innocents, like every other Christian Feast, is a celebration of His Cross, which these young martyrs of Bethlehem were given to share in advance by a Baptism of blood.
As throughout the Holy Gospel, you are given to find yourself in this story, and to hear this Word of God in Christ addressed to you and to your circumstances (under His Cross). Not as a checklist of rules and regulations with which to work your way into heaven, but as a Word of the Gospel of the Cross, whereby you are washed in the blood of the Lamb. Thus are you called by this Gospel, not to work, but to be crucified, dead, and buried with Christ Jesus, in order to be raised with Him, as well, and to live with Him in His Kingdom in righteousness, innocence, and blessedness forever.
You are here called by God the Father Almighty to be His own dear child: to be united with His only-begotten Son, in His crucifixion, death, and burial, unto the Resurrection of His Body and yours, to the life everlasting of body and soul. You are called out of Egypt, covered by the blood of this Lamb, through the waters of the Red Sea; fed by the living Bread from heaven in the desert; and led through the waters of the Jordan into the Promised Land. For this is the true Exodus, fulfilled in the Christ-Child, Jesus, ultimately by His own innocent death and holy blood-shed.
He gathers up into Himself (and He fulfills) the entire history of Israel, that He might then become and accomplish the salvation of the true “Israel,” that is, of all those who are the children of Abraham by faith (who are the sons of God in Christ).
He is Isaac, who was spared a sacrificial death at the hand of his father, that the Child of Promise might become the blessed Seed of Abraham, in whom all the nations of the world are blessed. And He is Joseph, the son of Israel and Rachel, who was spared a murderous death at the hand of his kin, that He might prosper in Egypt and accomplish the Lord’s great salvation of all people.
And He is Moses, who was spared from the slaughter of the innocents at the hand of a tyrant Pharaoh, that He might be raised up by the mighty, outstretched arm of the Lord — in order to lead His people Israel out of slavery and death, into the freedom of forgiveness, life, and salvation.
Yet, this same Child who is spared on this occasion, who is called out of Egypt as the very Son of God, He shall be the Firstborn Son who is sacrificed and slaughtered in the place of all the others. For He is the Lamb whom the Lord Himself provides for the requisite sacrifice. Indeed, He is the true Passover, whose blood covers His people — including you — from the angel of death, and whose flesh is Meat indeed, your meal of salvation.
What Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Joseph and Moses, and all the others sons of Israel could not do (and could never have done or accomplished for themselves), He — the Son of God and Mary’s Son — has done and accomplished for them all, and for you and me and all mankind. He has done so, ironically, by the way of His own voluntary suffering and death upon the Cross.
Yes, it is by His death that He has conquered death and sheathed its sword. It is by His stripes that you are healed. It is by His blood that you are cleansed and forgiven, your iniquities pardoned.
Of course, the irony is, that the victory of the Cross appears to be anything but a victory in the eyes of the world. It is so contrary to the wisdom of the world and to anything that man would ever hope or expect. So, also, when you are given the Cross to bear, it feels like crushing defeat, and it can surely seem as though the Lord has abandoned you to the punishment, suffering, and death that you deserve for your sins. Then come the tears of mourning, and loud lamentations, when you stubbornly refuse to be comforted, as though your life and every hope were done for.
Truth be told, your old Adam is — and must be — crucified, dead and buried with Christ Jesus. And yet, again, it is precisely by and through His Cross that you are rescued from sin, death, and hell. Your death is life indeed: in Him! This is, to be sure, the great paradox (and divine mystery) of the Christian faith and life, beginning with your Holy Baptism: It is by dying with Christ and sharing His Cross that you also share His Resurrection and live with Him in His eternal salvation.
It is this divine paradox of the Cross and Resurrection — and therefore, also, the mystery of Holy Baptism — that we are given to perceive and celebrate in the Feast of the Holy Innocents. The wickedness of sin, death, and the power of the devil, is unable to prevail or to thwart the great salvation of the Lord, because He has taken even the last and most fearsome enemy, death, and He has bent this terrible opponent to His own will, to serve His own good and gracious purposes for Life, for you and for all people. So it is, that even the wicked death of innocent children must bow before Almighty God and serve to the praise and glory of His holy Name, for Jesus’ sake.
In the death of the Holy Innocents, you are given a picture of your own death with Christ in Holy Baptism, wherein you become a newborn child of God and enter His Kingdom with childlike faith. In each case, death is swallowed up in victory by the death of Christ Himself, the incarnate Son of God, upon the Cross. The blood of the infant martyrs of Bethlehem, like the blood of all the righteous martyrs from Abel to the end of the world, proclaims and gives witness to the precious blood of Christ Jesus, which cleanses you from sin. Thus are the tears of mourning sanctified, like the waters of Holy Baptism, to become a gracious and life-giving flood of salvation.
Out of Egypt the God and Father of our dear Lord Jesus Christ calls you to be His own dear child. He calls you through the waters of Holy Baptism into the Resurrection and the life everlasting. He opens your mouth to show forth His praise, in both life and death, by placing on your tongue and on your lips the “new song” of the Cross. For you are called to follow the Lamb wherever He goes; and so do you follow Him through suffering and death into the Promised Land of heaven.
There before the throne of God and of the Lamb — gathered together with the Holy Innocents and with all the dear children of our Father in heaven (whose angels do always behold His face) — there you feast upon the Lamb of God, who is your Life and your Salvation, now and forever.
Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears. In the valley of the shadow of death, fear no evil. For even in the land of the enemy, the Lord is with you. Here in the desert, between the Exodus and the verge of Jordan, you are fed by the hand of God with the very Bread of Life, and your thirst is quenched with the spiritual drink that flows from the side of Christ, your Savior.
“There is hope for your future,” declares the Lord, who speaks the Truth and does not lie. It is the sure and certain hope of His own Cross and Resurrection. This promise is for you, and for your children, and for your children’s children. It is for all who believe and are baptized in His Name. So it is that you shall rise to see the Lord in His own territory, and abide in the land of the living.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.