Magazine article Compass: A Jesuit Journal

Not Suitable for a Disney Christmas (the Fate of Herod's Child-Victims Prefigured the Plight of the World's Starving, Suffering Children of Today)

Magazine article Compass: A Jesuit Journal

Not Suitable for a Disney Christmas (the Fate of Herod's Child-Victims Prefigured the Plight of the World's Starving, Suffering Children of Today)

Article excerpt

In many ways, the Christmas story is ideally suited for a Disney movie: shepherds watching their flocks at night, three Wise Men from the east guided by a star; a helpless infant in a stable. Yet there is one part of the story that is too grisly for Disney--the attempt of Herod the Great, described in a short but chilling passage in the Gospel of Matthew, to protect his earthly power from the threat posed by the newborn king. To this end, Herod murdered all Bethlehem boys two years of age and under.

The number of child-victims was long disputed, with estimates ranging from 14,000 (the early Greek church) to 144,000 (cited by many medieval authors). Such figures are obvious fabrications: most modern authorities place the number at between six and twenty-five. There is also uncertainty about the perpetrator. Herod the Great is now believed to have died four years before the birth of Christ. Yet these issues aside, there is no doubt that some children were murdered or that this event, linked by the Gospel writer to the birth of Jesus, made a profound impression on early Christianity.

By the fourth century the Holy Innocents, as they were called by the Roman church, were regarded as martyrs, their feast being celebrated in the Latin tradition on December 28. The cult of the Innocents, fashioned in part by St. Augustine, spread quickly and widely. In England (where their feast was called Childermas), the Venerable Bede composed a hymn in their honour, and in medieval Europe there was a tradition of a boy bishop officiating on their feast day.

Along the way, history was enriched. The fifth-century writer Macrobius related that when news of the murders reached Rome, Caesar Augustus, mistakenly believing that Herod's son Antipater (executed at about the same time) was among the victims, remarked, in a snide reference to Jewish dietary laws, "It is better to be Herod's hog than his son." Other tales concerned Herod. In his eighteenth-century classic Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and other Principal Saints, Alban Butler recounted that Herod survived the murdered children only by a few days, and that on his deathbed his body was ravaged by a swelling cyst that "gnawed and consumed his bowels" before erupting into a "sordid ulcer, out of which worms ushered in swarms. …

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