Today the Catholic Church marks the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Herod, after realizing that the magi had deceived him, was “furious” and “ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under.” “Then was fulfilled,” Matthew continues, “what had been said 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.
The Church considers the slaughtered children to be the first martyrs: the first to die for Christ. It seems a tragic event to commemorate, an occasion for mourning rather than feasting. Yet St. Augustine, in a homily for this occasion, describes the day as a celebration:
Today, dearest brethren, we celebrate the birthday of those children who were slaughtered, as the Gospel tells us, by that exceedingly cruel king, Herod. Let the earth, therefore, rejoice and the Church exult — she, the fruitful mother of so many heavenly champions and of such glorious virtues. Never, in fact, would that impious tyrant have been able to benefit these children by the sweetest kindness as much as he has done by his hatred. For as today’s feast reveals, in the measure with which malice in all its fury was poured out upon the holy children, did heaven’s blessing stream down upon them. . . .
In full right do we celebrate the heavenly birthday of these children whom the world caused to be born unto an eternally blessed life rather than that from their mothers’ womb, for they attained the grace of everlasting life before the enjoyment of the present. 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. For already at the beginning of their lives they pass on. The end of the present life is for them the beginning of glory.
Augustine’s words might strike us, at first, as distasteful: how dare he call for rejoicing at the death of children! But he is not rejoicing in their death, nor calling for others to imitate “that exceedingly cruel king, Herod.” He is rejoicing, rather, in the resurrection: in the fact that ”the end of the present life is . . . the beginning of glory.” Death has no power over us as Christians; the fury of tyrants, from Herod to the present time, is spent in vain.
Glorious as that truth is, it could be cold comfort to a grieving mother, and it can sound glib if mentioned carelessly in the wake of someone’s death. It may be easier to wrap our minds around today’s feast—and the obvious question of why God allowed Herod to slaughter children—if we think of this world as “enemy-occupied territory.”
The phrase is C. S. Lewis’s, and it appears in his book Mere Christianity. As he explains it:
Christianity agrees with Dualism that this universe is at war. But it does not think this is a war between independent powers. It thinks it is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel.
Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.
From this angle, suffering is terrible (meaning we should try to prevent and alleviate it), yet it is to be expected. It is the natural result of living in the territory of the enemy. When the rightful king came in disguise, the lord of of this world did all he could—through Herod, Judas, Pontius Pilate—to prevent him from reclaiming his people. Yet the king still reigns. And that is why today is an occasion for feasting, not only mourning.