Feast of the Holy Innocents, Martyrs

By Rev. A. B. Sharpe



A.- The Holy Innocents are honored year by year as the first Christian Martyrs.  They did not in deed suffer for the faith of Christ, as all other Christian martyrs did; but theirs was the singular privilege of suffering in the place of Christ, so that of them it may most truly be said that the “filled up those things that were wanting n the sufferings of Christ, for His Body which is the Church.”  They were slain, because for all that their murderer knew, each one of them might have been our Lord Himself.  Certainly, no kind of death could be more honorable than that which was the means of saving the life of the Divine Child for His Work among men, and for the great sacrifice which in due time was to be offered for the Salvation of the world.

But how, it has been asked, can we give the honor due to martyrdom to those who died, not by their own will, as other martyrs did, but merely because they were unable to help themselves?  Praise is due to those who suffer patiently and bravely for the right.  But to do so implies a choice – the preference of death and pain and shame to denial of the truth and disloyalty to God.  It is for this noble choice that the martyrs ae honored.  But the Holy Innocents had not yet come to the use of reason: they could neither believe the truth, nor be willing to die rather than be faithless to it.  How, then, can they rightly be called martyrs, or receive the honor due to martyrdom?  The answer to this question is a very significant one; it goes to the very root of our religion, and arises out of the very nature of man’s relation to God.

What, after all, is it that the Church really honors in her saints and martyrs?  It is merely the natural powers of human beings, used in the most perfect way and for the most worthy object?  Surely not, the Church does not exist for the glorification of fallen human nature, but for the glory of God alone.  Her constant care and anxiety for the Salvation of souls is part of her desire for God’s glory; because God is glorified by the Salvation of souls more than by anything else in this world.  Even her solicitude for the bodily welfare of her children, her patronage of art and science and literature, the part she must play in the politics of the world – all depend on the same single motive.  God has made the bodies as well as the souls of men, and God is therefore honored by the care given to them and dishonored by their wanton injury: in God is all beauty and wisdom and power, and so He is honored by all manifestation of beauty or wisdom or power on earth, as their Creator and ultimate source.  Saints and martyrs, then, are honored for God’s sake; it is not precisely for what they have done that they hold their place in the Church’s calendar and in Christian hearts, but rather because of what God has done in them.  If it were otherwise, out worship of the saints and our prayers to them would dishonor God.  It would, indeed, be little if anything short of blasphemy and idolatry if our worship of them and confidence in them were anything apart from the worship and trust we owe to God.  Even the love and friendship which we cherish for one another on earth is unworthy of Christians unless there is in it some reference to God, the source and author of love and of all the qualities in men which are in any degree lovable and desirable.  So evidently is this true that even the pagan philosopher Aristotle held that the only worthy kind of friendship is that which depends on some high and noble quality in its object; and pagans as well as Christians are able to perceive that all that is high and noble comes from God and is in truth a manifestation of Him in His creatures.  So, our Lord bids us let men see our good works, that because of them they may glorify, not us, but our Father in Heaven; so, St. Paul lays down the Christian axion, “Let no man glory in men,” and the admiration excited by his own heroic conversion he recognizes only that “they glorified God in him.”

The object, then, of the worship which the Church offers to the saints is nothing but the Power and Love of God, which is manifested in their lives and deaths.  We “glorify God in them.”  The less there is of self in any one, and the more there is in him of divine grace; the more worthy he is of honor and love: for the honor is after all not his but God’s, and the love which is due to him is given through him to God.

Now in the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents there is nothing but God’s Will manifested; the infants themselves did and could do nothing.  Here, therefore, is the perfect fulfillment of God’s Will in His rational creatures; and here accordingly we find the very type and model of Christian sanctity.

B.- It is one, moreover, with which under difference circumstances we are familiar enough.  What is holier in this world than a newly baptized infant?  He has done nothing himself; his holiness lies precisely in the fact that God has done all for him.  But as everyone knows, the martyr’s baptism of blood supplies the want of baptism with water; and what God does every day for baptized infants, He did by an extraordinary grace for the Holy Innocents.  No higher praise can be given to any saint than to say, as it can be said with certainty of but few, that he has kept his baptismal purity unstained to the end.  His character has been developed by experience, he has stood in difficult and dangerous places, he has been attacked by bitter and powerful enemies, he has done untold good to the bodies and souls of men, he has been the object of numberless favors from God, he has constantly received abundant outpourings of Sacramental grace; but the result of it all is not that he has achieved any great outward success, or that he has become something different from that which he was at the beginning.  Though both these things are probably true, they are but incidents in his career; they are the accidents and not the essence of his sanctity.  The one essential and eternally valuable result of all that he has done and suffered is that he has “kept the good things committed to his trust by the Holy Ghost” (II. Tim. I, 13).  The charity which God gave him as a “habit” has been made “actual” by co-operation with grace, that is all.  As water can rise no higher than its source, so no human efforts can lift man to a state above that in which divine grace has placed hm when first God took him for His own.  And with the vast majority of us, our lives are spent in fitful struggles in return to that state in which they began: that is the end for which God showers His grace upon us and for which He allows His patience to be exercised by our feeble cooperation and our frequent relapses.

In fact, the one great object of our endeavors must be simply to “become as little children” – to recognize practically the truth that “of such is the Kingdom of heaven.”  The Holy Innocents are in fact the Christian ideal, which man in his mature age may by God’s help attain to, but which no efforts can enable him to surpass; in which self is wholly forgotten and disregarded, and God is “all in all.”  To put the case somewhat differently, the highest and most perfect use that man can make of his freewill is to unite it with God’s will, so that it is merged and lost there.  All that man’s will can do apart from God’s is to rebel and disobey.  Man reaches his end and achieves the only real success of life when he is wholly God’s.”  So, indeed, and only so, we may find our true place in God’s creation.  All the irrational creatures of this world obey God perfectly by simply following the nature He has given them; they cannot do otherwise, they cannot sin.  Man alone has the power to refuse to carry out the law of his own nature, which impels him to love and obey God, to Whom he belongs, and by Whom and for whom he was made; only man can sin, of all creatures on the earth.  But when sin is conquered and God’s will have its own perfect way with him, then man is restored to his place in the great harmony of Creation – then, like the infant martyr, he has no thought and no power (since he has laid it aside) of resisting God’s Will, no matter what that Will may require him to do or suffer.  The blessed who are confirmed in grace, though free, cannot go astray from God, in whom they find all happiness and good.  The angels do God’s Will with absolute exactitude, just as the earth goes on its appointed curse from age to age without wavering by a hair’s breath from its destined track.  As the Apostles said, “We cannot but speak the things we have seen and heard”; and we, though we may still fall from grace, yet so long as our wills are united with God’s Will, have no choice but to obey Him, whatever He may command.  Our Lord Himself declared that He came down from heaven “not to do His Own Will, but the Will of Him that sent Him” (St. John vi,38); and so He has made Himself at one with all His creatures, from the highest Seraph down to the very dust under foot, since the Will of God is the Law which all follow, which binds all together and all to God, except only where sin has cut God’s free creatures off from the great harmony of His Creation.  Well then might the twin children of old sing in their time of trial, “all works of the Lord, bless the Lord”; and well might St. Francis, most childlike of saints, yet all the truer man, see in the birds and beasts and fishes, and even in inanimate things, his brothers and sisters in the service of God.

C. – The Holy Innocents, then, are the models on which our characters are to be finally and permanently formed, if we desire to be saved.  “Whosoever shall not receive the Kingdom of God as a child, shall not enter into it.”  We must, before we can enter heaven, have reached that state of purity through divine grace which the “Baptism of blood” conferred on them; and we must accept the Cross, as they accepted it – not, indeed, necessarily without understanding it, as they did, but, like them, having no choice but to submit to God’s Will, whatever it may be.  The one thing impossible to us must be to deny Christ in word or deed, no matter what the earthly cost of fidelity may be.  When many of our Lord’s followers left Him because of His hard sayings, the Apostles remained faithful: for, they said, “To whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.”  So still the Catholic soul finds many things in life that are hard to understand (though, indeed, those who are without God’s Church find many more); he has to submit to some inconveniences; he may have even to suffer persecution for his faith; but if he really has faith and love to our Lord, it is simply impossible for him to turn back from obedience to his Savior – to whom else can he go?

So we too, may come to that state of absolute obedience which the Holy Innocents set before us – which is also the state of the irrational creatures of God, no less than of the angels and the blessed.  The Holy Innocents, and all baptized infants who die in infancy, are fixed in that state by a special grace, which God, in His Wisdom, has seen fit to bestow on them.  We, whose infancy is passed, must also reach it by divine grace, but through the labor and dangers of a lifetime; and those who have borne the heat and burden of the day will in the end have no reason to be dissatisfied with their reward, though it is no more than is received by those who have not labored at all.  For the reward is God Himself; and in the Infinite Being there is neither more or less, nor can any limit be imposed on God, save only the capacity of those who are privileged to receive Him.  The Kingdom of Heaven is not, indeed, a kingdom of children; still less is it a kingdom of the childish or imbecile; “Do not become children in sense, but in malice be children, and in sense be perfect” (1Cor. xiv 200).  There are still some who receive this Apostolic precept in their conduct; but there is nothing holy in silliness of any kind, nor can sin ever be anything but sinful.  What we have to gain is the unquestioning obedience and the ready affection of children; what we have to avoid, or get rid of, is the selfishness which the world teaches, and which is too often – though quite mistakenly – identified with intelligence or capacity for business, probably because of the unhappy frequency with which talents are employed for selfish our purposes.  To love God above all things – to let nothing stand in the way of obedience to His Will, that is the summary of Christian life; and it has little enough in common with the maxims of worldly prudence, or the principles usually acted on in commercial and financial affairs.  But the object of life is naturally happiness; and true happiness is to be found only in God, here or elsewhere.  The Christian who lives, and it may be suffers also, for the love of God, is successful in this universal quest, even in this life, as no one else can be.  The bad Catholic is torn asunder by mutually opposing desires, because he wants to serve God and mammon both at one; and so he becomes the prey of constant remorse.  The man or the woman who cares only for the things of this world, and knows or acknowledges nothing greater or better, leads a maimed and stunted and distorted life, and has no notion of what happiness really means.  But “blessed are they who suffer for justice’s sake” - whether in God’s providence they suffer little or much – for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven; already they have found their reward in the possession of that kingdom which is “within them,” as well as in the promise of endless joy in heaven hereafter.

The Holy Innocents, then, are honored to-day because they represent by a special gift of God that unquestioning surrender of self to the Will of God, which is the Christian ideal; and they are our examples for the same reason – examples which we may well bear in mind in all those dark and difficult moments when we have to choose between the Will of God calling us to the Cross, and the ease or comfort or pleasure which sinful disobedience to that Will seems to offer.

But the infant martyrs after all, only reflect the infinitely greater self-surrender of the Divine Infant Who is on our thoughts at this time.  For He also was helpless and ignorant.  He suffered from the very beginning of His Life, in order that the Father’s Will might be done in Him, and we adore His helplessness and ignorance and suffering because in them we perceive the Infinite Power and Wisdom and Love of God.  So, the glory of the martyrs leads us always back to the King of martyrs, and the holiness of the saints to the author and source of sanctity.  So, if we love and honor and imitate them, we cannot fail to love and obey and follow Him Who is their Savior and ours; and in the infants who might have been His playmate, but were in fact His forerunners, we see His sanctity reflected as we must strive that one day it may be reflected also in us