Herod was the king in Judea at the time Christ was born. He was an unpopular king, working as he did for the Romans, and his cruelty knew no bounds. He feared any threat to his power, and news of this newborn king troubled him. The wise men, whom he had asked to report the whereabouts of the Christ Child, did not return to him. Thus, “Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time of which he had ascertained from the wise men” (Matthew 2:16). Little did Herod know that the new king and his parents had already escaped.
This passage is the basis for the feast of the Holy Innocents. In allowing this massacre, God allowed Jeremiah’s prophecy of the Old Testament to be fulfilled in the New Testament: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more” (Jeremiah 31:15).
The Catholic Church honors those infant boys as the first martyrs of the Church on December 28th, the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Martyrs die in witness to their belief in God. What is unique about this martyrdom is that they died to save God – God as the infant Jesus. They did not know Him, so their witness was not the same as subsequent martyrs, and they died in total innocence. The pain must have been excruciating for the parents as well as for the people of the entire area. They could not have understood the senselessness of the slaughter. Children were their hope for the future, and now their boys were dead.