John Gayford looks at how innocent children were put to death in the place of Christ by an evil king


The only biblical account we have of the slaughter of the innocents by order of King Herod is in St Matthew’s Gospel 2.16. Thus it is important to have some idea about Herod. He is often called ‘Herod the Great’ who was, with Roman authority, Governor of Judea, but he was a complex, wealthy and violent man who murdered a wife and two sons for fear that his power was being usurped. He provided money to rebuild the Temple but his Jewishness was disputed. He himself was from an Edomite background, a small South Palestinian area forcibly converted to Judaism by John Hyrcanus, a Jewish high priest in the second century BC. Unless the Edomites became Jews they had to leave the kingdom, most obeyed this edict and often married into Jewish families. Thus Herod was not a Jew of the house of David or Aaron. He became a vassal of Imperial Rome with an ambivalent relationship with Jewish authorities as is described in St Matthew (2.1-5). We hear in verse 16 that Herod was angry and had all the male children under the age of two killed in and around Bethlehem. 

We cannot be certain how many were killed nor how big a region covered. The estimated number of boys murdered varies considerably. Herod had a reputation for rage especially towards the end of his life. The population of a town like Bethlehem may have been only about 300. Josephus (c37-100AD), and writing well after the event, does not mention it, so perhaps saw it as a minor event. Herod had such a violent reputation that the death of a few children was not worth recording (especially as he had murdered a wife and two sons). If the region was small so may the numbers have been. Most soldiers would be reluctant to murder children, having to tear them away from their mothers to verify their sex before killing them. If Herod the old man was not at the scene to ensure his orders, it was possible to exaggerate official numbers without raising suspicion. There is even a suggestion that the whole story was a legend to parallel Pharaoh’s plan to eradicate Moses (Exodus 1.13-22). St John the Baptist would also be a potential victim but the apocryphal Protevangelium of James claims Elizabeth his mother took him away to the hills for safety. If she had knowledge of what was to happen the word may have spread through mother and baby groups of the region and other mothers may have followed her example. The question could be raised if Joseph had warning of what was going to happen he could have shared the information with others who may have followed the example of the Holy Family into exile. 

By contrast with our efforts to decrease the number of victims, the Eastern Churches have claimed a very large number of what they call simply the Holy Children. The Byzantine liturgy speaks of 14,000 and the Syrian Church of 64,000 but the Coptic Church speaks of 140,000, the same number in Revelation 14.1-5 used as a reading for this feast. There have been attempts to expand these numbers by including children of both sexes who have been murdered in atrocities through history or in Ukraine now. Some include babies lost in miscarriage, stillbirth or abortion; and our neglect of poverty, disease or famine. Perhaps too conveniently, theologians may consider the Innocents as myth with a message.

Since the fifth century the feast has been part of Western liturgy but it appeared in Christian art from the 3rd century. In the Liturgy of Pope Pius V the Mass was celebrated in violet vestments but since 1969 it is celebrated in red vestments. It was the only feast in which the Gloria was omitted but this has now been returned. Cathedral and large church choirs with a musical tradition take a break after their Advent and Christmas activities so the liturgy of the Holy Innocents is more often said than sung on 28 December. Gregorian chant enthusiasts will find that there is a full set of antiphons for the Offices and Propers for Mass in Latin, most translated into English either from Roman or Sarum sources. Gregorian chant Masses and the offices are rarely heard sung in full other than in abbeys that have an association with Solesmes. There was a Tract (sung on weekdays) and an Alleluia (sung when the feast fell on Sundays). The Introit to the Mass Ex ore infantium (out of the mouths of babes and sucklings) taken from Psalm 8 has an element of haunting sacred awe but often sung too slowly outside monastic settings in an attempt to project sadness. The Communion Vox in Rama (a voice in Rama) taken from St. Matthew 2.18 is the only other piece that is specific to this feast, the melodies of the Gradual, Alleluia and Offertory being shared with other Masses. At one time there was a special tone used for the Epistle (Revelation 14.1-5) sung by two or three sub-deacons alternating between verses. The Gospel tells the story as recorded in St. Matthew 2.13-18. Before the Council of Trent there was a sequence for this feast (Celsa pueri concrepent melodia) often translated as Sound forth O Children your shrill melodies. This like the majority of sequences was abandoned in 1570 after the Council of Trent. The beautiful hymns composed by Prudentius (348-413) Audit Tyrannus Anxius (The anxious tyrant hears with dread) and Salvete, flores martyrum (All hail, you infant martyr flowers) are retained in the Divine Office of the Roman Rite but now in the Office of Readings and Lauds. In terms of other hymns, Sedulius (c. 450) wrote Hostis Herodes impie (Why Impious Herod, should you fear) used at Vespers. The Venerable Bede (672-735) wrote the long Hymnum canentes martyrum translated and set to music by John Mason Neale as The hymn for conquering Martyrs, EH 35. There are other musical settings of this feast.

At the office of Readings the second is from a sermon of St. Quodvultdeus (his name means ‘what God wants’) who became bishop of Carthage in 421 and communicated frequently with St Augustine of Hippo. This reading explains some of the historical theology behind the events. Quodvultdeus is sympathetic to Herod in his rage and ignorance but is more sympathetic to the parents who mourn their children, finally he offers consolation to the children who are helpless to enter the battle but carry off the palms of victory. After this reading a prolonged pause for contemplation is well worth while. 

There are a number of famous paintings of the massacre of the Innocents: Pieter Bruegel the elder painted in the 16th century and his son in the 17th century. Rubens and others also painted famous works on this subject. Regretfully some artists painted macabre pictures. There is a surviving ‘Coventry Carol’ of the 16th century which has a haunting lullaby lament in English of a mother grieving over her murdered son. The author is unknown but the text was written down by Robert Crowe in 1534 and the melody printed in 1591. Now sung as a Christmas carol it was originally sung as one of three songs at a Coventry Mystery play performed by the Guild of Shearmen and Tailors. It tells the Christmas story focusing on St. Matthew chapter two including the massacre of the innocents by King Herod. The plays were supressed as a result of the Reformation but interest in the Mystery plays started again in the 19th century. In them we see three women with their children immediately after Joseph had been warned by an angel to take his family to Egypt. The text has been modernised, extra verses added and brought to fame in the 1940s after the bombing of Coventry Cathedral.

Holy Innocents day is celebrated on 28th December in the Western Church but has other dates in the Eastern Orthodox Churches. The massacre of the innocents is traditionally a commemoration of the first Christian Martyrs. Liturgy appears in the Leone Sacramentary of 485. Another name for this feast day is Childermas or Children’s Mass Day. The feast continued to outrank Sundays within the Octave of Christmas until 1969 when the motu proprio Mysterii Paschalis removed this privilege except for churches holding this as dedication. The feast continued in the Book of Common Prayer of 1662 with a modified translation of the Sarum Latin Collect.

There are traditions of attempted reparation for children, to gather round the crib with their Christmas presents to have them blessed on this day. This should have some modern appeal. Other traditions are of ‘boy bishops’ possibly elected on St Nicholas Day (6 December). On Holy Innocents Day there could be non-sacramental parodies acted out such as ‘boy bishops’ who wear mitres and process with Canons, and may preach and sing where appropriate and might continue until the Feast of the Epiphany. Although there was official disapproval of these activities in the 11th century they continued. In monastic houses role reversal might appear, thus a novice may receive some of the dignity given to the Superior (Abbot or Abbess) while the latter served at table. This reversal of senior and junior roles could be extended into the family or community for the day and fathers were encouraged to bless their children. Rustic involvement developed local custom; as in the Christ-child removed from the crib and placed in safe hiding on Innocents’ day. In the middle-ages this day was unkindly called ‘All Fools day’ or day of pranks with a tradition of children playing tricks on their elders and often rewarded for this. In Bethlehem there was a special veneration of the Innocents led by the Franciscans with solemnity.

So on this fourth day of our Christmas joy we are tempered by feelings of sadness, when we hear the words of the Coventry Carol, Herod ….. the king in his raging, charg-ed he hath this day, his men of might, young children to slay, and from an English translation of the Sequence, Herod ….. with a troubled mind, seeks the King of Light and heaven. 

There is a pathos in Jesus calling little children to him and the Innocents suffering for him. They were martyrs baptised by their own blood into salvation. As Augustine says the Flores martyrum were killed by the frost of persecution.


Suggested Further Reading:-

Johner, D. The Chant of the Vatican Gradual. Translated from the German by Monks of St. John’s Abbey. Gregorian Institute of America Toledo Ohio 1948

Jones, K. The Holy Innocents in Butlers Lives of the Saints: December (New Full Edition) Burns & Oates the Liturgical Press Collegeville Minnesota 2000.

Schaller, H. Herod, Herodians in the Encyclopedia of Christianity (Volume 2) William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company Cambridge 2001.