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Hope from the Holy Innocents

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 28, 2010

We ought to draw considerable hope from the example of the Holy Innocents as we celebrate their feast today. These were the children two years old and under whom Herod ordered killed in and around Bethlehem when he learned from the magi that a new king had been born. Although ancient liturgical references to the Holy Innocents in both the East and West suggest vast numbers, such numbers are clearly symbolic. In reality, there would have been relatively few children of the required age in that district, for Bethlehem was a very small town. The point is that all of them are in Heaven.

This simple fact is a great source of hope, and it may be part of the reason the Church has so taken the Innocents to heart. They may in some sense represent all who suffer without offering any sort of willing witness to Christ, which surely includes every person who has ever lived, at one time or another. In any case, these children did not know Christ and did not choose to die for Him, let alone to die in His place. Yet the Church has celebrated them as martyrs from the first, with a formal feast being added to the liturgical calendar in their memory sometime in the fourth or fifth centuries. By that time the word “martyr” was already generally reserved for those who voluntarily paid the supreme penalty for professing the Christian faith. The Holy Innocents, in contrast, did not have the gift of Faith, and they bore witness to Christ only independently of their own wills.

I take this point very seriously. Despite what we might call immense theoretical deficiencies, the Church regards each of the Holy Innocents as saved beyond any possible shadow of doubt, a gift bestowed by the Father by virtue of the fact that He chose them to give the witness of blood to His Son. Their example is, again, a sign of hope for all those who die without knowingly rejecting Christ—the same Christ who was determined to be “lifted up from the earth” so that he might “draw all men to himself” (Jn 12:32).

No small number of those who read these words, myself included, will have spent countless hours studying and arguing questions of truth and morality and salvation. Many of us have also prayed unceasingly for the conversion of friends or family members, often without discernible results. All this argument and prayer and resistance can get us down at times. We want to see the “requirements” of Faith being fulfilled, so that we can be assured of the results. For enemies, we may at times wish shamefully to see our judgment vindicated, but not for those we love. There we seek mercy, but we’d be far more comfortable with repentance—with a visible turn toward the light, with some clear token that salvation is at hand.

There should, of course, be no difference in this between enemies and friends, for Our Lord has enjoined each one of us: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44). But the point here is that we prefer clarity; we prefer to know. The Holy Innocents teach us, among other wonderful things, that we simply cannot know whether God has worked salvation in another’s soul or not. It is enough for us to know that we are called to love God and live according to His will; it is self-evidently not for us to know—apart from canonized saints—how successful others have been in this regard, or whether Our Lord has brought about invisible miracles of grace on their behalf.

We learn from the Holy Innocents both that there is an economy of salvation, backed and guaranteed by Christ Himself, and that we are incapable of reading or even understanding the ledger sheets. So often what we count as gain will be dismissed as loss, and what we count as loss will be prized as gain. We know from other teachings of our Faith that we must not be useless servants; nothing about the Holy Innocents leaves us free to ignore this truth. But we also learn from them that it is impossible for us to discern which servants are useless. Instead, we learn once again that God “desires all men to be saved” (1 Tm 2:4), and that He has more ways in heaven and earth to draw them to Himself than we can begin to imagine.

For all of the professional arguers, in whose company I (sometimes sheepishly) count myself, I must stress that the Innocents don’t “prove” anything. They don’t prove that the rest of Christianity doesn’t really matter, or that everyone is saved, or that nobody at all is saved without some humanly discernible connection with Christ, or that the path of salvation prescribed for us by the Church may be taken or left as we see fit, or that we are free to regard it as essential or inessential. The involuntary witness of the Holy Innocents proves no theory. It was not a witness to a theory. In fact the only voluntary witness involved is the merciless witness of Herod that he killed them to destroy Christ and the merciful witness of the Church that Rachel need weep no more (Mt 2:18), for these children are in heaven. And why in Heaven? Simply because, by the will of the Father and the power of the Holy Spirit, they were incorporated into Christ.

As to how this can be, we simply do not know. That is why the eternal happiness of the Holy Innocents is such a monumental sign. This salvific gift, as extraordinary as it is terrible, turns all of our notions upside down about how God is constrained to act. It leaves us totally in the dark. We can discern no reason at all why these Innocents should have been so disfavored by man and so favored by God. But this is a precious ignorance. We should rejoice in it as in a blessing beyond all telling. For this is exactly what makes the Holy Innocents such a powerful sign of one absolutely vital thing, and of one thing only: They are a sign of hope.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: bnewman - Dec. 28, 2010 9:46 PM ET USA

    Very interesting discussion and a suggestive 'thought extension' of this Gospel passage. I must admit that I always made a connection to aborted children from this passage without thinking of a justification. Then again, Jesus promised the "good thief" on the cross that he would be with him in paradise "this day." Again theological niceties do not seem to be observed. Nothing is impossible with God.