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The Holy Innocents: A Reflection on Evil

Today the Church celebrates in her liturgy the Feast of the Holy Innocents, Martyrs. The Church views these little infants whose lives were sacrificed in bearing witness to Christ as "the first of mankind to be won for God and the Lamb," as we read in the 2nd antiphon from the Divine Office.

Photo credit: Marek Piwnicki

Photo credit: Marek Piwnicki


By Deacon Frederick Bartels
12/28/2023 (6 months ago)

Published in Christian Saints & Heroes

Keywords: Feast, Holy Innocents, Saints, evil

This slaughter began with the visit of the magi. Matthew chapter two tells us, wise men came from the East in search of the newborn king of the Jews. But when king Herod heard of this, "he was troubled," for in his envy he feared this little infant would one day claim his throne. Herod shrewdly asked the wise men to return to him after finding the child and inform him of its whereabouts. When they did not, Herod believed he had been tricked, and flew into a "furious rage." He then ordered the massacre of all the children two years old and younger in Bethlehem and the surrounding region.

Herod the Great, who took power as the ruler of Jerusalem in 37 BC, is known for his harsh and inflexible rule, malicious wickedness, and envy. He murdered Mariamne his wife, three of his own sons, and other members of his family. His life is a manifestation of the depths of darkness into which vice and deadly sin can plunge a man.

Sin is like a cancer that eats into the soul. Those who walk in its darkness corrupt their character and become, in many ways, beastly. Consequently, the vicious, vice-filled man can be relied upon to commit wicked acts.

The Mystery of Evil

But, as it's often asked, why would God allow Herod to cause the murder of these innocent children? Would it not have been better for Christ to protect them, rather than allow their deaths at the hands of so wicked a man? These kinds of questions reflect the perennial mystery of evil. If God is perfectly good and infinitely powerful, why does he allow it? This, in part, is perhaps what led St. Augustine to say, "I sought whence evil comes and there was no solution."

There are many ways of approaching these questions. God created man in his image and likeness, to rule over the earth and subdue it. He gifted man with the power of freedom -- the ability to use his reason and will to choose the good or its opposite, evil. Freedom is necessary for man to choose to love God and others, for without it, he is no different than irrational animals who operate on instinct. God does not revoke his divine gifts, but rather places the power in man's hands to use them properly, within their due limits, or to turn inwardly on himself and abandon love, goodness, beauty, and truth in favor of his selfish desires.

Furthermore, when one man does evil, it provides another with the opportunity to resist it, do the good, restore justice and peace, and comfort the suffering.

God therefore permits evil for good reasons. Furthermore, in a mysterious way and according to his divine providence, the behavior of wicked men unwittingly plays into his providential plan of love and goodness. This is the case for the Holy Innocents, as Saint Quodvultdeus wrote in his sermon:

The children die for Christ, though they do not know it. The parents mourn for the death of martyrs. The child makes of those as yet unable to speak fit witnesses to himself. See the kind of kingdom that is his, coming as he did in order to be this kind of king. See how the deliverer is already working deliverance, the savior already working salvation....How great a gift of grace is here! To what merits of their own do the children owe this kind of victory? They cannot speak, yet they bear witness to Christ. They cannot use their limbs to engage in battle, yet already they bear off the palm of victory.

God's Loving Compensation

While it is true that the Holy Innocents as well as their parents suffered greatly at the hands of the wicked Herod and his soldiers who drew their blood, that is not the end of the story. If we look beyond this historical massacre into the reality of God's infinite love, we can begin to grasp this fact: God can compensate those who suffer innocently for his sake in this life in a superabundant way in the next. Evil never has the last word for those who love Christ, especially those who die as his witnesses.

If given the choice, what would you choose? A life of power and wealth and treachery, only to suffer eternal damnation and pain in hell, or to suffer innocently for Christ and thus live a life of joy and bliss that extends into eternity? Regardless of how painful this life may be, the happiness of the next infinitely outweighs its suffering.

Faith in Christ

Ultimately, the question of evil remains, at least in part, mysterious. No one has every answer. No one will remain untouched by the suffering it causes. Nevertheless, it is temporary. God has a plan to subdue it and make all things new in Christ. As the Church explains in the Catechism, to begin to answer the question of evil, one must turn to the Christian faith as a whole:

If God the Father almighty, the Creator of the ordered and good world, cares for all his creatures, why does evil exist? To this question, as pressing as it is unavoidable and as painful as it is mysterious, no quick answer will suffice. Only Christian faith as a whole constitutes the answer to this question: the goodness of creation, the drama of sin and the patient love of God who comes to meet man by his covenants, the redemptive Incarnation of his Son, his gift of the Spirit, his gathering of the Church, the power of the sacraments and his call to a blessed life to which free creatures are invited to consent in advance, but from which, by a terrible mystery, they can also turn away in advance. There is not a single aspect of the Christian message that is not in part an answer to the question of evil. (CCC 309)

Trust in Christ
Whenever we are confronted with moral evil and suffer from it, it is essential to trust in Christ. It is there, in abandoning ourselves to him and his divine plan, that our hopes and desires are realized, just as it was for the Holy Innocents: "Lord, these little ones praise you and skip with joy like lambs, for you have set them free" (1st antiphon, Divine Office). In Christ, we are the victors, even in the midst of life's darkest moments.

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