“A voice was heard in Ramah,
Lamentation and bitter weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children,
Refusing to be comforted for her children,
Because they are no more.”
Little has changed across two millennia in the Middle East; today, as in the time of Christ, mothers weep for their children, killed by tyrants who seek to control what they fear will otherwise destroy them. The feast of Childermas has been celebrated on 28 December in the Latin Church (and a day later in the Eastern Church) since at least the fifth century, and as with all feasts of such antiquity, may go back very much further.
Matthew 2: 16-18 gives us the story of the massacre. Did it actually happen? have no independent testimony, but we do know that Herod’s record was such that it was the sort of thing he did – one of his own wives and three of his own sons were killed on his orders at times when he suspected there were plots to dethrone him; so there is nothing inherently improbably in it. More recent, harrowing examples, from the same region remind us that evil men in power will stop at nothing to retain their position – and that to such men human life is cheap.
Indeed, before the advent of Christianity, human life was generally held cheap. The death rate among new-borns was high, and there would have been few families at the time who did not have the experience of losing a baby, and even a mother, in child-birth. But the massacre of little children was something else – it was seen as barbarous, even in barbarous times. Quite what even barbarous times would make of the modern West’s habit of mass abortions, who can tell? To those without an ideological blindness to it, the practice is appalling, and it is no accident that the abortion industry does not want the details of what goes on inside its clinics more widely spread; few, surely, can read the detail without a feeling of nausea? But such is the state of our ‘civilization’ that now only the Catholic Church holds the line firmly here. The same faith which told the world that even the life of a slave was worth the same as that of an Emperor in the eyes of God, tells an unheeding world that the life of every child in the womb is valued in those same eyes. It holds to a high view of the worth of human life in a world where, increasingly, it is seen as having variable value. The unborn, the handicapped (yes, don’t use the word, but do defend aborting such babies whilst they are in the womb – never forget words are all that matter) and the elderly, especially the elderly who are unwell, all of these lives have a different value to those of the ordinary person of working age upon whom health services can spend a small fortune to keep alive and as fit as possible. All lives matter, but some matter far more than others.
In commemorating the Innocents massacred by Herod, the Church reminds us that human life is created by God, and that God alone should take it. But it also reminds us of the cruelty of our fallen human nature, and the futility of evil. Herod never did catch the child whom the Magi visited, but no matter, he was eventually apprehended by the authorities who persuaded Pilate that this ‘King of the Jews’ was a danger to Roman authority, and Pilate did, belatedly, what Herod had failed to do. A sinless man was sacrificed – and the fears of the authorities assuaged – for a moment and until the next crisis – for rest assured, there will always be another crisis. Yet how many would now know the names of Pilate and Herod were it not for their connection with the story of Jesus of Nazareth?
And we, in our time, what can we do? Simply continue that message that all human life has supreme value in God’s eyes, and do what is in our power to support all Christian organisations which seek to uphold what the Gospels tell us.