January 4 – The Octave of Holy Innocents

We finish today the Octave consecrated to the memory of the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem. Thanks be to God, who has given them to us, to be our intercessors and our models! Their name will not reappear on the Church’s Calendar until the return of the Christmas Solemnity; let us therefore devoutly approach these sweet Infant Saints—venerate them, love them, and address to them our farewell prayers.

The Holy Church, which on the feast vested in the color of mourning—and this out of condolence with Rachel’s grief—now, on the Octave day clothes herself in the red of her Martyrs in order to honor these Babes, who shed their blood for Jesus. Notwithstanding, she is full of tender compassion for these poor Mothers, who suffered such agonies of grief at the sight of the murder of their little ones: she continually alludes to it in today’s Liturgy and reads, in the Office of Matins, a passage from an ancient Sermon which vividly describes their feelings. We cannot withhold it from our readers. The Sermon from which it was taken was for a long time attributed to St. Augustine.

“When our Lord was born, there began lamentation, not indeed in heaven, but on earth! Lamentation for the Mothers, joy for the Angels, heaven for the Babes. He that is born is God: a victim must be offered him, and Innocents must be that offering, for he came to condemn the malice of this world. Tender lambs must be slain, for the Lamb who is come to take away the sins of the world is to be crucified. But the Mothers wail, because they lose their lambs that scarce have voice to make their bleatings heard. O wonderful martyrdom! O sight most cruel! The sword is unsheathed, and there is no enemy; jealousy alone spurs on the band, for He that is born would injure no man.

“There, then, sit the Mothers, weeping over their lambs. A voice in Rama is heard, lamentation and great mourning. These sweet pledges are not mere things entrusted to their care, they are the children of their own wombs; they are pledges, but they are not given, they are cruelly stolen from them. Nature herself is witness, it betrays the children whom the tyrant is in search of. The Mother tears her hair, for she has lost her beauty in losing her babe. Oh! how she sought to hide him, and the innocent one betrayed himself! He knew not how to be silent, for he had not yet learned to fear. The Mother struggled with the executioner; he seized her child, resolved to murder him; she clung to him, resolved to hold him to her bosom. ‘Why,’ she exclaimed, ‘why separate me from my child? I gave him birth, and I fed him at my breast untiringly. I bore him in my arms with fondest care, and thy cruel hand has dashed him to the ground! This fresh and lovely fruit—thus trampled on!’

“A second Mother bade the executioner take away her life together with that of her child: he would not, and she cried out to him: ‘Why dost thou send me away, having slain my son? If there was any fault, I only could be guilty: if there was no fault, let me die with my babe, and rid me of my wretched life.’ A third exclaimed: ‘What is it that ye seek? Ye are in search of one, and ye slay so many! and Him, who is One, ye cannot find!’ And again another cried out: ‘Come, O come, thou Savior of the world! How long shalt thou be sought for? Thou fearest no man: let these soldiers see thee, and so not slay our children.’ These were the lamentations of the Mothers; and the immolation of their Babes ascended as a sacrifice to heaven.”

Among these Children thus cruelly massacred, from the age of two years and under, there were some belonging to those Shepherds of Bethlehem, who had been called, on the Night of our Savior’s Birth, to go and adore him in his Crib. These, after Mary and Joseph, the first worshippers of the Incarnate Word, thus offered, to the God who had called them, the most precious treasure they possessed. They knew to what Child their children were sacrificed, and a holy pride filled their souls as they thought of this new proof of God’s singular mercy to them, in preference to so many others of their fellow creatures.

As to Herod, he was foiled in his schemes, as must ever be the case with them that wage war against Christ and his Church. His edict for the murder of every male child that was two years old or young, included Bethlehem and its entire neighborhood; but the Child he alone cared for and wished to destroy, escaped the sword and fled into Egypt. It was another proof of the world’s folly in opposing the designs of God; and in this instance, the very measure that was intended to effect evil, produced good—the tyrant enriched the Church of heaven with Saints, and the Church militant with so many fresh patrons.

Jesus, the newborn King of the Jews (Matthew 2:2), who causes Herod to tremble on his throne, is but a Little Child, without so much as one single soldier to defend him. Herod, like all the persecutors of the Church, has an instinctive knowledge which teaches him that this apparent weakness is real and formidable power: what neither he nor his successors knew was that it is worse than useless, and worse than folly, to attempt to crush a spiritual power by the sword. This apparent weakness of the Babe of Bethlehem will increase with his years; now he flees from the tyrant who seeks his life; but later on, when he has grown into Manhood, he will not escape from his enemies; they will fasten him to an infamous gibbet between two Thieves—but on that very day, a Roman Governor will declare this Jesus to be King; he will write, with his own hand, the inscription to be nailed on the Cross: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. Pilate will give Jesus, and with all possible formality, that very Title which now makes Herod turn pale: the enemies of Jesus will protest, they will insist on the Title being altered; but Pilate will not change an iota, and will say: What I have written, I have written (John 19:22). As on the day of his Crucifixion, he will admit one of the two Thieves to share in his triumph; so now that he is laid in the Crib, he will share his glory with the Innocents of Bethlehem.

The Mass is given above, page 314. The Gloria in excelsis is said.

Let us once more honour these dear Innocents, by culling their praises from the various Liturgies. We will begin with three Responsories from the Roman Breviary.

RESPONSORIES.

℟. These that are clad in white robes, who are they, and whence came they? And he said unto me: * These are they who are come out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and have made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.

℣. I saw, under the altar of God, the souls of them that were slain for the Word of God, and for the testimony which they held. * These.

℟. These are they which have not defiled their garments; * They shall walk with me in white, because they are worthy.

℣. These are they who were not defiled with women; for they are virgins. * They.

℟. These Saints sang a new canticle before the throne of God and the Lamb; * And the earth resounded with their voices.

℣. These were purchased from among men, the first-fruits to God and to the Lamb, and in their mouth there was found no lie. * And the earth.

The two Collects which follow, are from the Leonine Sacramentary.

PRAYER

O God, who though great in great things, dost nevertheless work with exceeding glory in those that are the least: grant, we beseech thee, that we may rejoice on this the Feast of them, who bore testimony, though they spoke not, to thy Son, our Lord.

PRAYER

Grant, we beseech thee, O Lord, to thy faithful people, that, as thy Apostle saith, they may become children not in sense, but in malice; that thus they may imitate the Martyrs of this day’s Feast by the simplicity of their hearts, since they cannot attain to the merits they acquired. Through Christ our Lord.

We take the following beautiful prayer from the Mozarabic Breviary of the Gothic Liturgy of Spain.

CAPITULA

O Jesus, Light ineffable of the world! who, whilst yet in thy Crib, and not thyself a Martyr, didst give the palm of martyrdom to the army of Innocents: who, not being able to speak, did, by thy will, utter their many cries when being massacred by the cruel soldiers: whose souls, when thou didst freely die for all our sakes, were taken by thee from the depths of limbo: — to these same, O Jesus, inspire the desire of incessantly praying for us, the little and weak : that thus, not deserving to be cleansed from our sins by our own prayers, we may obtain both present and eternal purity by the intercession of them, that follow thee whithersoever thou goest, singing to thee their hymns and canticles.

The Missal of the same Church gives us also this prayer.

PRAYER

O God, whose mercy is granted to every age and sex; and who didst lavish on the Innocents such richness of fatherly love, that thou wouldst neither suffer them to be kept in Egyptian bondage, nor, (when they left this world under the Law, as their fathers had done,) to be deprived of the Gospel’s fullness of grace; but didst call them to thy kingdom, in common with them that were made perfect under the law of Grace, thus making them a lesson and an example to us of innocence that knows no evil: grant unto us thy servants, that laying aside our power for evil, and dying to the concupiscence of the flesh, we may have no will save that of being taught by thy instructions. May our soul be thus neither rigid nor proud; may she be gentle, and innocent, without being imprudent; may she be humble, without being weak; that hereby, by the timely judgment of discernment, she may both know thy good pleasure and do it, and ignore how to do that which offends thee. May she, moreover, possess that wholesome temperance, which flows from the guidance of counsel; that so, she both imitate the simplicity of these Innocents, in that they were children, and emulate their fortitude, in that they were combatants. Amen.

Prudentius, the Poet of the Mysteries and the Martyrs, and from whom the Church has taken her beautiful stanzas for the Feast of the Holy Innocents, Salvete, Flores Martyrum, celebrates the immolation of these lovely Babes of Bethlehem, in his exquisite Hymn for the Epiphany. It is from this Hymn that the Roman Liturgy has had recourse for several great Feasts; and we now extract from it the strophes which refer to our dear Innocents.

HYMN

The anxious Tyrant hears that the King of kings is come, who is to rule over the Jews, and sit on the throne of David.

Maddened by jealous fear, he calls a messenger, and says to him: “Our rival is at hand — we are in danger: go, slave, arm thee with thy sword, and bathe every cradle with blood.

“Let every male-child be slain, and every nurse be watched, and every Babe feel thy sharp-edged blade, even whilst he sucks his mother’s breast.

“Not a Mother about Bethlehem but I suspect her; then, watch them all, lest they hide their boys from thee.”

On this, the executioner goes, and, in his wild cruelty, plunges his naked dagger into the tender flesh and the but freshly formed hearts of these little ones.

But, where shall he strike? where find space enough to hold a gaping wound, in these infant-bodies not so big as the dagger in his hand?

Yet still these butchers murder every child. Here, it is an infant dashed against a rock, covering its flinty sides, oh! cruel sight! with blood, and brains, and eyes.

There, it is a lovely babe torn from his mother’s arms and thrown into a deep stream, whose gurgling waters weep whilst drowning sobs and life so sweet as these.

Hail, ye Flowers of the Martyrs! The enemy of Christ cut you down in the very threshold of life, as rose-buds are snapped by a storm.

First Victims for Jesus! Tender flock of his Martyrs! ye, with sweet simplicity, play with palms and your crowns, even at the very altar of your sacrifice!

And what does Herod gain by this dark crime? Does it give him what he sought? The single One he cared to kill is Jesus, and He still lives!

The stream of infant-blood has ceased to flow, and He alone is safe: the Virgin’s Child has escaped that sword, which robbed all other Mothers of their babes.

So was it in that time of old, when Moses, the liberator of his people, and the type of Christ, escaped the senseless edicts of the wicked Pharaoh.

We will close our selection by this Sequence of Notker, which is given in the collection of Saint Gall.

SEQUENCE

Praise be to thee, Jesus, Son of the all-perfect Father, Almighty God!

Unto whom the sweet hymns of the citizens of heaven are ever giving praise,

And the Innocent Babes are ever singing their melodious songs of praise in the courts above.

These Babes were slain by the ruthless sword, at the bidding of a wicked king, who hated thy name,

And now are richly rewarded in heaven, by thee Jesus, in return for the sufferings they endured;

Herein showing thy wonted mercy, which gives, to all who serve thee, crowns of richest beauty.

By the holy prayers of these Innocents, mercifully cleanse us, we beseech thee, from the sins of our past lives,

And lovingly grant, that they whom thou hast associated to thyself to give thee praise, may become our protectors here below.

On them bestow the light of endless glory; on us, the victory over earthly things,

That thus, by a life of holiness, we may merit an abundance of the riches of thy grace.

Of all that devoutly praise these thy holy Innocents, may none be made companions with Herod,

But may they all live for ever with thee, Lord, in the society of this sweet choir of. heaven. Amen.

Sweet Flowers of the Martyrs! your Feast is over in our Church on earth, but your patronage will never leave us. During this new year of the holy Liturgy which God has given us, you will watch over us, and pray for us to the Lamb who loves you so tenderly. We entrust to you the fruits of grace which our souls have gathered from the Christmas Feasts. We have become little children together with our Lord; we have begun a new life with him; pray for us, that we may grow with him in wisdom and age, before God and man (Luke 2:52). Secure us perseverance, by your prayers; and to this end, keep up in our hearts that Christian simplicity which is the special virtue of Children of Christ. You are innocent, we are sinners; still, we are brethren; love us, then, with brotherly love. You were garnered into heaven at the very dawn of the Law of Grace; our lives have fallen on the close of time, and the world has grown cold in charity; be near and help us; cheer and encourage us in our combat by showing us your lovely palms of victory; pray to our Lord, that we may speedily obtain by repentance the heavenly crown which his infinite mercy allowed you to win without the fatigues and risks of a battle.

Infant Martyrs! forget not the young generation which has just entered on the scene of life. You were taken to eternal glory at the age of infancy; these little ones are like you in their innocence; love them, watch over them, pray for them. The grace of their Baptism is upon them in all its freshness, and their pure souls reflect, as a mirror, the holiness of the God that dwells in them by grace. Alas! these Babes are to go through great trials; many of them will forfeit the grace of God, and their Baptismal garment will lose its unspotted purity. The world will seek to corrupt their heart and mind, and the frightful influence of bad example is almost always successful. Christian Mothers will have to weep over the ruin of their children’s souls, and what consolation is there for such a grief as theirs? There is a Christian Rama, and a Christian Rachel, ever wailing in the Church: do you, sweet Innocents of Bethlehem, comfort these mothers, by praying for their little ones. Pray that our times may grow less evil, and that parents may have less need to fear than they now have—that the first step taken by their children in the world will be death to their souls.

=======

This text is taken from The Liturgical Year, authored by Dom Prosper Gueranger (1841-1875)