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Meet the Holy Innocents: The "infant martyrs" Who Died for Baby Jesus

"Massacre of the Innocents," by Mariano Rossi (1731-1807), in the church Chiesa id san Giuseppe alla Lungara, Rome. Shutterstock

The Holy Innocents did not know Jesus, but they died in his place. Dec. 28 marks the feast of these baby boys who are, today, recognized as the first martyrs and pro-life patron saints.

Their story appears in the Gospel of Matthew.

After Jesus’ birth, King Herod the Great of Judea – named “king of the Jews” by the Roman Senate – learned of this “newborn king of the Jews” from the Magi. Troubled by the news, he deceivingly asked the Magi to report back to him Jesus’ location “that I too may go and do him homage.” But a dream warned the Magi not to return to Herod. 

St. Matthew (2:16-18) records what happens next. 

“When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the Magi, he became furious. He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the Magi,” the gospel reads. “Then was fulfilled what had been through Jeremiah the prophet: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loud lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children, and she would not be consoled, since they were no more.’”

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Since then, artists through the centuries — from Giotto di Bondone to Léon Cogniet and Angelo Visconti — have captured the haunting moment of terrified mothers desperately clinging to their little ones. In music, the Coventry Carol, traditionally considered a Christmas carol, tells the story with an equally haunting tune.

"Herod the king in his raging / Set forth upon this day / By his decree, no life spare thee / All children young to slay,” the lyrics read. “Then woe is me, poor child, for thee.”

The song goes on: “And when the stars fill darkened skies / In their far venture, stay / And smile as dreaming, little one / Farewell, lully, lullay."

Fact vs. fiction

Some historians dispute Matthew’s account because Herod biographers, such as Flavius Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, does not write about the slaughter. Catholic apologist Trent Horn responds to this argument in Catholic Answers.

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“Such an act of cruelty perfectly corresponds with Herod’s paranoid and merciless character, which bolsters the argument for its historicity,” Horn wrote in 2019. “Josephus records that Herod was quick to execute anyone he perceived to threaten his rule, including his wife and children.” 

Horn suggested that Josephus may not have considered the event notable.

Back then, “Bethlehem was a small village that would have included, at most, a dozen males under the age of two,” Horn wrote. “Josephus, if he even knew about the massacre, probably did not think an isolated event like the killings at Bethlehem needed to be recorded, especially since infanticide in the Roman Empire was not a moral abomination as it is in our modern Western world.”

Josephus, he added, failed to record other historical events, including when Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome in A.D. 49. 

Pope Francis on the Holy Innocents

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In a 2016 letter marking the Feast of the Holy Innocents, Pope Francis acknowledged that “Christmas is also accompanied, whether we like it or not, by tears.” He pointed to St. Matthew quoting the prophet Jeremiah, when he describes Rachel weeping for her children.

“It is the sobbing of mothers bewailing the death of their children in the face of Herod’s tyranny and unbridled thirst for power,” the pontiff related.

This cry continues today, he added.

“Today too, we hear this heart-rending cry of pain, which we neither desire nor are able to ignore or to silence,” he continued. “In our world — I write this with a heavy heart — we continue to hear the lamentation of so many mothers, of so many families, for the death of their children, their innocent children.”

What does this have to do with abortion?

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The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops recognizes the slaughtered innocents as the patrons of children, babies, and foundlings. In particular, the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities has set aside this feast day to “pray for all mothers who have suffered the loss of their children through abortion.”

“May this feast inspire us to protect the lives of the innocent unborn in our society with greater zeal,” the committee shared on Twitter in 2019. 

In 2020, in remembrance of the feast day, Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia., tweeted: “Herod did the unthinkable and murdered holy innocent babies. In our age, infants are killed daily through the horror of abortion. In honor of the Holy Innocents, whose feast we celebrate today, we pray for an end to abortion and for the protection and safety of all children.”

How are they martyrs if they did not know Jesus?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which summarizes official teaching, defines martyrdom as “the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith: it means bearing witness even unto death.”

According to St. Augustine, the Holy Innocents are indeed martyrs. 

“The precious death of any martyr deserves high praise because of his heroic confession; the death of these children is precious in the sight of God because of the beatitude they gained so quickly,” he is quoted as saying. “For already at the beginning of their lives they pass on. The end of the present life is for them the beginning of glory.”

He concluded, “These then, whom Herod’s cruelty tore as sucklings from their mothers’ bosom, are justly hailed as ‘infant martyr flowers.’”