The Liturgical Year: The Holy Innocents

The Holy Innocents28 December

The feast of the beloved Disciple is followed by that of the Holy Innocents. The Crib of Jesus – where we have already met and venerated the Prince of Martyrs and the Eagle of Patmos – has today standing round it a lovely choir of little Children, clad in snow-white robes, and holding green branches in their hands. The Divine Babe smiles upon them – he is their King; and these Innocents are smiling upon the Church of God. Courage and Fidelity first led us to the Crib; Innocence now comes, and bids us tarry there.

Herod intended to include the Son of God among the murdered Babes of Bethlehem. The Daughters of Rachel wept over their little ones, and the land streamed with blood; but, the Tyrant’s policy can do no more – it cannot reach Jesus, and its whole plot ends in recruiting an immense army of Martyrs for heaven. These Children were not capable of knowing what an honour it was for them, to be made victims for the sake of the Saviour of the world; but, the very first instant after their immolation, and all was revealed to them: they had gone through this world without knowing it, and now that they know it, they possess an infinitely better. God showed here the riches of his mercy – he asks of them but a momentary suffering, and that over, they wake up in Abraham’s Bosom; no further trial awaits them, they are in spotless innocence, and the glory due to a soldier who died to save the life of his Prince belongs eternally to them.

They died for Jesus’ sake – therefore, their death was a real Martyrdom, and the Church calls them by the beautiful name of The Flowers of the Martyrs because of their tender age and their innocence. Justly, then, does the ecclesiastical Cycle bring them before us today, immediately after the two valiant Champions of Christ, Stephen and John. The connection of these three Feasts is thus admirably explained by Saint Bernard:

“In Saint Stephen, we have both the act and the desire of Martyrdom; in Saint John, we have but the desire; in the Holy Innocents, we have but the act. Will any one doubt whether a crown was given to these Innocents? If you ask me what merit could they have that God should crown them, let me ask you, what was the fault, for which Herod slew them? What? Is the mercy of Jesus less than the cruelty of Herod? And while Herod could put these Babes to death, who had done him no injury, Jesus may not crown them for dying for Him?

“Stephen, therefore, is a Martyr by a Martyrdom of which men can judge, for he gave this evident proof of his sufferings being felt and accepted, that, at the very moment of his death, his solicitude both for his own soul and for those of his persecutors increased; the pangs of his bodily passion were less intense than the affection of his soul’s compassion, which made him weep more for their sins than for his own wounds. John was a Martyr, by a Martyrdom which only Angels could see, for the proofs of his sacrifice being spiritual, only spiritual creatures could understand them. But, the Innocents were Martyrs to none other eye save yours, O God! Man could find no merit; Angel could find no merit; the extraordinary prerogative of your grace is the more boldly brought out. From the mouth of the Infants and the Sucklings you have perfected praise. The praise the Angels give you is: Glory be to God in the highest, and peace on earth to men of good will; it is a magnificent praise, but I make bold to say, that it is not perfect, till He comes who will say: ‘Suffer Little Children to come unto me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven; and in the mystery of my mercy, there shall be peace to men that cannot even use their will.'”

Yes, God did for these Innocents, who were immolated on his Son’s account, what he is doing every moment now by the sacrament of regeneration, in the case of children, who die before coming to the use of reason. We who have been baptised by water should be all the more ready to honour these Little Ones, who were baptised in their own blood and thereby associated to all the mysteries of the Divine Infancy. We ought, together with the Church, to congratulate them, for that a glorious and premature death secured them their innocence. They have lived upon our earth, and yet it defiled them not! Truly, these tender Lambs deserve to be for ever with the Lamb of God! May this same earth of ours, grown old in wickedness, draw down the divine mercy on itself, by the love and honour it gives, each year, to these sweet Children of Bethlehem, who, like the Dove of Noah’s Ark, could not find whereon to rest their feet.

In the midst of the joy, which, at this holy time, fills both heaven and earth, the Holy Church of Rome forgets not the lamentations of the Mothers, who beheld their Children cruelly butchered by Herod’s soldiers. She hears the wailing of Rachel, and condoles with her; and, unless it be a Sunday, she suspends on this Feast some of the manifestations of the joy, which inundates her soul during the Octave of her Jesus’ Birth. The Red vestments of a Martyr’s Day would be too expressive of that stream of infant blood which forbids the Mothers to be comforted, and joyous White would ill suit their poignant grief; she, therefore vests in Purple, the symbol of mournfulness. The Gloria in excelsis, the Hymn she loves so passionately during these days, when Angels come down from heaven to sing it – even that must be hushed today: and, in the Holy Sacrifice, she sings no Alleluia. In this, as in everything she does, the Church acts with an exquisite delicacy of feeling. Her Liturgy is a school of refined Christian considerateness.

This expression of sympathy gives today’s Office a pathetic sadness, which, however, in no ways interferes with the joy, which the Church feels in celebrating the Feast of the Holy Innocents. She keeps it with an Octave, as she does the two preceding Feasts of Saint Stephen and Saint John. She sanctions the practice, observed in Cathedrals and Collegiate Churches, of allowing young boys to share in the duties of the Choir, and blend their innocent chanting with that of the Ministers of God. She grants them several privileges, and takes pleasure in seeing the delight wherewith these children perform the several functions entrusted to them. This joy, this simplicity, this innocence, all add a charm to the divine Service; and through these youthful Choristers, the Church pays honour to the Infant Jesus, and to the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem.

In Rome, the Station for the Feast of Saint Stephen is in the Church dedicated to the holy Protomartyr, on Monte Celio; that for Saint John is in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major; today, the Station is made at Saint Paul’s beyond the Walls, which possesses several of the bodies of the Holy Innocents. In the 16th century, Pope Xystus V caused a portion of these Relics to be translated to Saint Mary Major’s, and put near the holy Relic of our Lord’s Crib.

Lesson from the book of the Apocalypse of Saint John the Apostle

In those days: I beheld the Lamb standing on mount Sion, and with him a hundred forty-four thousand, having his name, and the name of his Father, written on their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven, as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of great thunder; and the voice which I heard was as the voice of harpers harping on their harps. And they sung as it were a new canticle before the throne, and before the four living creatures and the ancients; and no man could say the canticle, but those hundred forty-four thousand, who were purchased from the earth. These are they, who are not defiled with women: for they are virgins. These follow the Lamb wherever he goes. These were purchased from among men, the first-fruits to God and to the Lamb, and in their mouths there was found no lie: for they are without spot, before the throne of God.

The Church shows us, by her choice of this mysterious passage of the Apocalypse, how great a value she sets on Innocence, and what our own esteem of it ought to be. The Holy Innocents follow the Lamb, because they are pure. Personal merits on earth they could not have; but they went rapidly through this world, and its defilements never reached them. Their purity was not tried, as was Saint John’s, but it is beautified by the blood they shed for the Divine Lamb, and He is pleased with it, and makes them his companions. Let the Christian, therefore, be ambitious for this Innocence, which is thus singularly honoured. If he have preserved it, let him keep and guard it as his most precious treasure; if he have lost it, let him repair the loss by repentance, and having done so, let him say with the Spouse in the Canticle: I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them?

Gradual for the Mass of the Holy Innocents

Our soul has been delivered, as a sparrow, out of the snare of the fowlers.
   The snare is broken, and we are delivered; our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

In the Gradual, we have the Innocents blessing their God for having broken the snare, wherewith the world would have made them captive. They have fled as a bird set free; there was nothing to clog their flight.

Tract for the Mass of the Holy Innocents

They have spilled the blood of the Saints, like water, about Jerusalem.
   And there was none to bury them.
   Revenge, O Lord, the blood of your Saints, which has been spilled on earth.

The Tract expresses the lamentation of Rachel over the cruelty of Herod and his minions. It invokes the divine vengeance, which swept away the whole family of this vile Tyrant.

Sequel to the Holy Gospel according to Matthew

At that time: An Angel of the Lord appeared in sleep to Joseph, saying: Arise, and take the Child, and his Mother, and fly into Egypt, and be there until I shall tell you. For it shall come to pass, that Herod will seek the Child, to destroy him. Joseph arose, and took the Child and his Mother by night, and retired into Egypt, and he was there until the death of Herod that it might be fulfilled which the Lord spoke by the Prophet, saying: Out of Egypt have I called my son. Then Herod, perceiving that he was deluded by the Wise Men, was exceedingly angry: and sending, killed all the men children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the borders thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time, which he had diligently inquired of the Wise Men. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremias, the Prophet, saying: A voice in Rama was heard, lamentation and great mourning: Rachel bewailing her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.

Thus does the Gospel, in its sublime simplicity, relate the Martyrdom of the Innocents. Herod, sending, killed all the Children! The earth paid no attention to the fell tyranny, which made so rich a harvest for heaven: there was heard a voice in Rama, Rachel wailing her little ones – it went up to heaven, and Bethlehem was still again, as though nothing had happened. But, these favoured Victims had been accepted by God, and they were to be the companions of his Son. Jesus looked at them from his crib, and blessed them; Mary compassionated with them and their mothers; the Church, which Jesus had come to form, would, for all future ages, glorify these youthful Martyrs, and place the greatest confidence in the patronage of these Children, for she knows how powerful their intercession is with her heavenly Spouse.

And now let us listen to the several Churches celebrating the triumph of the Holy Innocents. Their chants for this Feast are very beautiful. We will begin with the following fine Preface, which is in both the Ambrosian Missal, and in the Leonian Sacramentary.


It is truly meet and just, right and available to salvation, that we should exceedingly praise you, O Holy Almighty Father, in the precious death of the Infants, whom the unhappy Herod, with savage cruelty, slew because of the Infant Jesus, your Son, our Lord, Herein do we recognise how immeasurable are the gifts of your mercy, for the splendour of your free grace outshines the martyrs’ will; and they nobly confess your name, who are not yet able to speak. They suffer martyrdom before their bodies are ripe for martyrdom: they bear testimony to Christ before they have even known him. O the infinite goodness of the Omnipotent God! He suffers not the merit of everlasting glory to be lost by them that are slain for his sake, though they know not what they do: and being bathed in their own blood, he effects in them the salvation of regeneration, and gives them the crown of martyrdom.

The following is from the Mozarabic Missal, and is full of unction and eloquence.

It is meet and just, yea truly right and just, that we should always and in all places give thanks to you, O Holy Lord, Almighty Father, Eternal God, and now especially for these whose yearly feast we this day keep, celebrating the memory of their passion. These are they whom Herod’s satellites snatched from their mothers’ breasts. Rightly are they called The Flowers of the Martyrs, for they grew in the mid-winter of infidelity, as the first buds of the Church, and, being nipped by the frost of persecution, filled the city of Bethlehem with a ruddy stream. They were Babes, and could not speak; yet did they joyfully proclaim the praise of the Lord. Their deaths profess, what their lives could not. They say by their blood, what they could not with their tongue. Martyrdom gave them power to praise, though their tongue denied them that of speech. The Infant Jesus sends these Infants, before himself, to heaven: he presents these new gifts to his Father, and offers to him, as the first fruits of martyrdom, this of the Innocents, who were slain by the wicked Herod. This enemy confers on them what their body could not; while he injures their body, he benefits it; while their body falls, it lives by its death, it rises by its fall, it conquers by its defeat.

Our Venerable Bcde offers us the following Hymn, which is full of melody and pathos.

• Let us chant the hymn of the Martyred Innocents, whom earth lost, and wept, but heaven gained and was glad.
• Their Angels see the Face of the Eternal Father, and sing the Hymn of their Martyrs, lauding the grace of God.
• A cruel king destroyed them, the merciful Creator received them, making them happy with Himself in the brightness of the never-ending kingdom.
• He that gives to each elect a mansion in his Father’s house, places the Innocents, massacred by the impious king, on thrones in heaven above.
• Herod was angry, and slew every child below the age of two, staining with their sacred blood the borders of Bethlehem.
• Precious in the sight of Jesus shone the innocent death of these his faithful ones; and Angels came down to carry them to the land of heaven.
• A voice in Rama was heard, lamentation of poignant grief, and Rachel shed a flood of tears over her infant sons.
• Who now rejoice in endless triumph, for they overcame their torments, whose cruel blows filled Rama with the voice of wailing.
• Fear not, Little Flock, the prowling lion’s tooth! for the Good Shepherd will give you the pastures of heaven.
• Following the spotless Lamb o: God in the path of purity, we need not fear, dear Little flock, a robber’s wicked grasp.
• The Father will wipe every tear from off your cheeks; death shall have no further power to hurt you, enclosed now within the walls of Life.
• They that sow in tears, reap eternal joy: and the Creator wipes every tear away from the mourner’s face.
• O truly happy Bethlehem, city wherein our Redeeraer was born, and where he was presented with the first Martyrs – the first Victims dedicated to the new-born King.
• No, Bethlehem, you shalt not be called the least among the thousand cities, for out of you came the divine Leader! O truly blessed City!
• Around his throne now stand, glittering in their fair bright robes, these Innocents who washed their garments red in the Blood of the Lamb.
• They had sighed and wept in the kingdom of the ever-dyin world – now they stand fully before God, and bright are their robes of glory, are ever singing his praise.

The Greek Church is, of course, profuse in her praise of the Holy Innocents. We extract from her Menoae the following stanzas.

The impious Herod, searching out Jesus the Hidden Treasure, slew the Innocent Children; and the inconsolable Rachel, seeing the iniquitous shedding of blood, and the premature death of her Babes, first grieving from the bottom of her heart, now rejoices seeing them in Abraham’s Bosom.

The wicked king sought for the King Eternal, yet born in time: and not finding how to kill Him, he mowed down the innocent multitude of children, thinking not that he was making them Martyrs, and citizens of the heavenly kingdom, and eternal accusers of his impiety.

You, O Lord! being born of the Virgin, that were born of the Father before all ages, and having become, out of your infinite goodness, a Little Child – there was presented unto you a choir of little children, made Martyrs by the shedding of their blood, and clad in brightness, the most just reward of their innocence of soul. You gave them to dwell in eternal mansions where they proclaim Herod’s malice and most cruel injustice.

In this manifestation of the King of all, all exulted in heaven and on earth, save only Herod and the Jews, the murderers of the Prophets – they are sad, for they alone have cause for sadness, seeing that their kingdom is at an end; but the kingdom of the Lord henceforth shall rule, repelling the daring of our enemies, and calling the multitude of the Faithful to come, with the holy Children, and see Him, The Little Child, that lies in the manger.

The impious Herod fearing, sent his reapers to cut the tender grass of Bethlehem’s little field – the Innocents: and failing in the murder of the Infant-God, confusion fills his soul.

Rachel bewails her sons, and a loud cry is heard today in Rama: Herod rages and maddens in impiety: John flees to the mountains, his mother Elizabeth hides in a cave, Zachary is slain in the temple, and Jesus escapes, leaving the Hebrew land a desert.

The Innocents were the first offering consecrated to your immaculate Birth, O Jesus, for Herod, that fain would apprehend You, the Incomprehensible God, was fooled in his craft, and gave you a choir of Martyrs. Therefore, O God made Man, save us, we beseech you!

Most honoured Innocents, the cry of your murder has ascended to the ears of the God of Sabaoth. Your blood was shed by the massacre, but you are resting in Abraham’s bosom, and, by the power of the Infant Christ, your triumph over Herod’s detested malice is eternal.

Hateful is Herod’s massacre of your Children, O Rachel, by his cruel soldiers, but venerable the holocaust of your Babes, the companions of Jesus in age, but his predecessors in their sacrifice and passion: then, weep not for your Children, Rachel, remembering Abraham’s Bosom, where is the one dwelling of them all, and they are in joy.

Into this sublime concert of the Liturgies singing the praises of the Innocents, we must admit the Latin Churches of the Middle Ages. We have selected a Prose of the 11th century, found in most of the ancient Roman-French Missals.

• Sound forth, O Children, your shrill melodies,
• In honour of the holy joys of the Innocents.
• The Infant Jesus took them, this day, to the realms above,
• When the rabid madness of Herod’s craft slew them,
• Though guilty of no crime:
• They were the Children, in the city.
• And all the confines of Bethlehem,
• Two years old and under,
• Dating from the time of their birth.
• The unhappy King Herod, fearing the kingdom of the Infant Christ,
• Trembles from head to foot, and brandishes his sword with his haughty hand.
• He, with his troubled mind, seeks for the King of Light and heaven;
• That, by his weapons, he might put to death Him that gives life:
• For his eye cannot look on ihe bright Light of Him, who searcheth clouded hearts.
• Herod is inflamed with rage, and cruelly plots the death of thousands of Innocents.
• A wicked chieftain takes with him a troop of soldiers, and plunges his sword in the tender flesh.
• The pure stream of infant veins, (for blood is scarce yet formed), flows upon the mothers’ breasts.
• The brutal enemy tears the flesh with gaping wounds, and on the throat inflicts a fatal gash:
• Trampling out life, e’er the tender age is sinewed into strength.
• Oh, how glorious the bodies of these murdered Innocents!
• How happy the Mothers of such Children!
• O amiable legion of Innocents!
• O holy infant-combats fought for Christ.
• The Babes lay slain in thousands, and from their tender limbs there flows a stream of sinless blood.
• The citizens of heaven come forth to meet the snow-white troop, that takes the crown of Life, won by a singular victory.
• We most devoutly beseech you, Jesus, who came to reform the world,
• That you grant us to enjoy, for everlasting ages, the glory of the Innocents.
• Amen.

Petition to the Holy Innocents

And we, too, Blessed Babes, we celebrate your triumph, and we congratulate you in your having been chosen as the companions of Jesus when in his Crib. What a glad waking was yours, from the darkness of unconscious infancy to the precious light of Abraham’s bosom, where were congregated all the elect! How dear to you the sword that thus transformed you! What gratitude had you not for the God, who thus chose you, out of millions of other children, to do honour to the birth of his Son, by this sacrifice of your blood and lives! Too young to fight the battle, yet did you win the crown. The Martyr’s Palm waved in those tiny hands, which had not strength to pluck it. God would give proof of his munificence – he would teach us that he is Master of his gifts. And, was it not fitting, that the birth of the Son of this great King should be commemorated by largess such as this? Sweet Infant Martyrs, we give praise to our God for his having thus favoured you, and, with the whole Church, we rejoice in the privileges you have received.

Flowers of the Martyrs, we confide in your intercession, and beseech you, by the reward so gratuitously conferred on you, to be mindful of us your Brethren, who are struggling amidst the dangers of this sinful world. We, too, desire to receive those same Palms and Crowns, which you have won, but with such innocence and simplicity, that the Church says you. played with them: whereas we have to fight hard and long for them, and are so often on the point of losing them for ever! The God that has glorified you, is our last end as truly as he is yours; in Him alone can our hearts find their rest; pray for us, that we may possess him for all eternity.

Pray for us, that we may obtain child-like simplicity of heart, whence comes that unreserved confidence in God, which leads man to the perfect accomplishment of his holy will. May we bear the cross with patience, when he sends it, and desire nothing but his holy will. You gazed upon the murderers who broke your gentle sleep, and you found nothing to make you fear; the bright sword they held over your cradle, had but the look of a toy you asked to play with; death stared you in the face, and you smiled on him. May we imitate you, and be meek and graceful in the trials that come to us; making them our martyrdom by the quiet endurance of our courage, and the conformity of our will with that of our Sovereign Lord and Master, who only gives the cross that he may give the crown. May we never object to or hate the instruments he uses wherewith to try us; may no harshness nor injustice nor pain ever quench the fire of our charity, nor any event ever deprive us of that peace, without which our souls live not to God.

And, lastly, O you Innocent Lambs, slain for Jesus. and following him wherever he goes, because you are pure – pray for us to the Lamb of God, that he permit us to come to him in Bethlehem, and, like you, fix our dwelling there, for it is the abode of love and innocence. Speak for us to Mary, a Mother more compassionate than Rachel; tell her that we are her Children, and your Brethren. She that compassionated your momentary sufferings, will pity us and help us in our long years of temptation, pain, and sorrow.

– from the book The Liturgical Year: Christmas, volume 1, by the Very Reverend Dom Prosper Gueranger, Abbot of Solesmes, translated from the French by the Revered Dom Laurence Shepherd, Monk of the English-Benedictine Congregation, 2nd edition; published in Dublin Ireland by James Duffy, 15 Wellington-Quay, 1870