Slaughter of the Holy Innocents
In a stark contrast to the joy and light of Christmas day Matthew’s Gospel records an event which ranks amongst some of the most violent and horrific in the Bible.
Rather than Shepherds, Matthew has Magi visiting the infant Christ to pay homage to Him as a representation of His kingship spreading to far and foreign lands. This kingship comes into direct conflict with the then reigning monarch Herod the Great. On their journey to Jesus the Magi visit Herod in his palace and inform him of the birth of the new king of the Jews. Herod was notoriously uneasy as a ruler and any challenges to his kingship where severely punished, he allegedly murdered his own sons to stop any threat to his power. Herod wished to eradicate this perceived new threat though as he did not know where Jesus was Herod instead ordered that all boys under the age of two were killed.
This story draws out the conflict between Jesus’ Heavenly Kingdom and the Kingdoms of this Earth; Herod see’s the infant Jesus as a threat to his rule and so responds with disproportionate violence. Ultimately Jesus’ kingship is one of vulnerability and peace which is threatening to those whose only way of life is violence. The Slaughter of the Innocents also mirrors the murder of the Israelite children in Exodus at the birth of Moses and so sets Jesus up as equal to, if not superior to him.
Historically it is unlikely that this story actually happened, there is no external evidence of the event, and it is in keeping with Matthew to include a story simply to fulfil Old Testament prophecy rather than satisfy historical accuracy. Lacking historical accuracy does not remove the impact of the placing of this story in the Gospel. As soon as Jesus is born He is highlighting the corruption and violence of earthly rule and showing that despite all the bloodshed and violence God is there. God does not stop the violence but speaks into it, showing its futility in the face of the divine victory of Jesus.
In our world of washed up boys on European beaches, celebrating the birth of the vulnerable infant Christ highlights again the violence and meaningless destruction of our political struggles for power and influence. Innocents are still being slaughtered by corrupt political authorities but just as that hasn’t changed, neither has the peaceful kingship of Christ which supersedes and invalidates violent rulers.
A Prayer for the Holy Innocents:
Father God who saved Your only Son from slaughter at the hands of a tyrannical ruler, we ask that you may be with those who have lost children to political violence. Like the voice calling out in Ramah, we ask that parents who cry out for justice are heard and comforted and that those who commit horrific acts of violence to those most vulnerable in society are judged. We ask in the name of the infant King Jesus. Amen
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