I said yesterday that St. Stephen was the first Christian martyr, but some people give that honor (?) to the victims of the Massacre of Holy Innocents. You may remember the story from the Gospel of Matthew: Herod, having heard of the birth of a child who would become King of the Jews, ordered the execution of all the young male children in Bethlehem. Jesus, of course; survived the massacre; an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and warned him of the impending massacre, so he took Mary and the infant and fled to Egypt, where they stayed until Herod died. I personally don't believe the Holy Innocents to be martyrs, for two reasons. First, to my way of thinking, martyrdom requires a free choice. Stephen could have saved his live by renouncing his faith, but he chose to die intead. The Holy Innocents were not given the choice. Second, the Massacre almost certainly did not happen. It's not mentioned in the other Gospels, nor in any contemporary history. That has not stopped many Christians from commemorating the event. In the western church, the Feast of Holy Innocents is observed on December 28; in the Eastern Orthodox Church, on Dec. 29; and in the Syrian Christian church, Dec. 27.
The Flight Into Egypt
Through every precinct of the wintry city
Squadroned iron resounds upon the streets;
Make shudder the dark steps of the tenements
At the business about to be done.
Neither look back upon Thy starry country,
Nor hear what rumors crowd across the dark
Where blood runs down those holy walls,
Nor frame a childish blessing with Thy hand
Towards that fiery spiral of exulting souls!
Go, Child of God, upon the singing desert,
Where, with eyes of flame,
The roaming lion keeps thy road from harm.
Thomas Merton (1915–1968)
Previous Advent posts:
2003: New Prince, New Pomp
2004: The Small Cowper Madonna
2005: A Merry Christmas
2006: Love Came Down at Christmas
2007: The Holy Family
2008: Lully, Lulla, Thou Little Tiny Child