Saints of the Day – Holy Innocents

'Massacre of the Innocents', Peter Paul RubensArticle

1st century; feast day in the Eastern Church is December 29.

“O martyrs, young and fresh as flowers,
Your day was in its morning hours
When Christ was sought and your were found
Like rain-strewn petals on the ground.”

– Prudentius, Salvete, flores martyrum

Herod the son of Antipater was designated procurator of Judea by Julius Caesar and king under Augustus Caesar. He ruled from 47 BC to 2 AD, and was therefore king when Jesus was born.

Herod assumed the title ‘the Great.’ Yet his was fanatically determined to stamp out any messianic threat to his throne. When he learned from the three Magi who had come to worship the infant Jesus that ‘a ruler shall come from Bethlehem who will govern my people Israel,’ he decided to kill the child. The Magi, warned in a dream not to tell Herod where to find Jesus, returned to the East by a different way (Matt. 2:1-12). In his rage King Herod decreed that every male child under two years old in Bethlehem and that region should be killed (Matt. 2:16-18).

Only because Joseph had been warned by a dream that this would happen and accordingly fled with his wife and Jesus to Egypt was the Savior spared (Matt. 2:13-15). The other innocent children were put to the sword. This is one of the seven sorrows of Mary: to realize the hatred others would have of her Son and Lord; to understand that saving her own baby led to the death of others.

The Holy Innocents were of the same land and same age as the little Jesus, nearly 18 months. Some were walking, their legs too far apart. They were beginning to say papa and mama. They were beautiful – each one more beautiful than the other. It was the flower of Bethlehem, these children who already were making their mothers smile.

The number killed under Herod’s order has often been exaggerated. Commentators has estimated that there were perhaps between six and 25 male children under the age of two who would have been found around Bethlehem at that time. Yet Herod’s savagery has become a deep historical memory. He later had his own son murdered, so that Augustus Caesar allegedly said, “Better to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.”

It is the custom in Bethlehem for Christian children to gather in the church of the Nativity every afternoon and sing a hymn in memory of the ‘flowers of martyrdom,’ who bore witness to the Messiah whom they did not know. The feast of the Holy Innocents has been kept in the West from the 4th century: They are considered to be martyrs because they not only died for Christ but instead of Christ. In Jerome’s martyrology they are called “the holy babes and sucklings”; in the Calendar of Carthage, simply “the infants.” Their relics are claimed by English and French churches.

In this feast the Church honors all who die in a state of innocence and consoles parents of dead children with the conviction that these also will share the glory of the infant companions of Jesus (Attwater, Bentley, Encyclopedia, Farmer).

MLA Citation

  • Katherine I Rabenstein. Saints of the Day, 1998. CatholicSaints.Info. 21 August 2020. Web. 26 November 2020. <>