Today, the fourth day of Christmas, the Church remembers an incident recorded in Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. The evangelist tells us how Herod, warned that a ‘new king of the Jews’ had been born in Bethlehem, gave orders for the massacre of all the boys aged two years or under in and around Bethlehem. The evangelist notes that this is a fulfilment of the words of Jeremiah. Later legend puts the number involved in the thousands, or even in the hundreds of thousands, though it has been estimated that the likely number of boys of that age in a town the size of Bethlehem might have been around twenty.
Scholars doubt the historical accuracy of this story, and we do not need to take it literally to commemorate today all who are wrongly persecuted and betrayed by those who should be protecting them.
The young boys in the story know nothing of Jesus, nor indeed of the politics and powers of this world. They cannot by any stretch of historical or theological imagination be described as Christians. Just babies or toddlers with a few words, they are the epitome of powerlessness and vulnerability, still dependent on others for all their needs. Primarily they depend upon their parents, but secondarily they depend on their neighbours, and on the earthly powers-that-be for protection from the evils and disasters that can strike at any time.
And despite their ignorance of Jesus, the Church has from ancient times commemorated them: a reminder that God’s love is for all; a reminder of the sufferings endured by so many; and a reminder of our responsibilities towards those who depend upon us, and those who are weaker than we are. And a reminder too of the need to hold the powerful to account, and to ensure, so far as we are able, that they too remember their responsibilities to the weak and powerless, and not abuse their power for their own ends.
It is a sad fact that such abuse of power and responsibility not only still exists, but also that it is not just confined to the obviously evil. From terrorists exercising power without responsibility, not caring about the suffering of the innocent, through politicians convinced of the ‘greater good’, to religious leaders who fail to use to the utmost their moral power and influence, we still see connivance, deliberate and thoughtless, in the persecution of those who have every right to expect the protection of the more powerful.
The best way in which we can commemorate this feast today of the Holy Innocents is to speak out against and to work towards the end of the tyranny of evil. Not just this day, but every day.