The Holy Innocents – Liturgical Highlights8-min read (inc. footnotes)

“Ye play with your palms and crowns beneath the very altar.”

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There are many moments of beauty and pathos in the Church’s year. But, in my opinion, few are so equally filled with both bitterness and glory as the feast of the Holy Innocents. It is very noticeable that Christ’s coming to the world is marked with blood from the very beginning, both in time and in the liturgical calendar.

I would like to share some excerpts from Dom Prosper Guéranger’s entry in The Liturgical Year for this feast.

Here, first, is the highlight of what Guéranger gives us. It is the poignant Vespers hymn, in all its Roman sparseness:

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Vespers Hymn, Holy Innocents

Hail, ye flowers of the Martyrs: whom he who sought to slay Christ bore away on the very threshold of the light, as doth the biting wind the rosebuds.

Christ’s first victim, tender flock of lambs ready for sacrifice, now in your simplicity ye play with your palms and crowns beneath the very altar.

Glory be to thee, O Jesus, who art born of a Virgin, with Father and Holy Spirit, forever and ever. Amen.

V. Beneath the throne of God all the Saints cry out. R. Avenge our blood, O our God.


The image of the Innocents playing with their palms and crowns is achingly beautiful. Let us see what Guéranger says about it:


Guéranger’s commentary and prayer

Flowers of the Martyrs! We confide in your intercession, and beseech you, by the reward so gratuitously conferred on you, to be mindful of us your Brethren, who are struggling amidst the dangers of this sinful world. We, too, desire to receive those same Palms and Crowns, which you have won, but with such innocence and simplicity, that the Church says you played with them: whereas we have to fight hard and long for them, and are so often on the point of losing them forever! The God that has glorified you, is our last end as truly as he is yours; in Him alone can our hearts find their rest; pray for us, that we may possess him for all eternity.


Let us continue with some more of Guéranger’s comments on the feast:


Liturgical Commentary

The feast of the beloved Disciple is followed by that of the Holy Innocents. The Crib of Jesus—where we have already met and venerated the Prince of Martyrs and the Eagle of Patmos—has today standing round it a lovely choir of little Children, clad in snow-white robes, and holding green branches in their hands. The Divine Babe smiles upon them—he is their King; and these Innocents are smiling upon the Church of God. Courage and Fidelity first led us to the Crib; Innocence now comes, and bids us tarry there.

Herod intended to include the Son of God amongst the murdered Babes of Bethlehem. The Daughters of Rachel wept over their little ones, and the land streamed with blood; but the Tyrant’s policy can do no more: it cannot reach Jesus, and its whole plot ends in recruiting an immense army of Martyrs for heaven. These Children were not capable of knowing what an honor it was for them to be made victims for the sake of the Savior of the world, but the very first instant after their immolation, and all was revealed to them: they had gone through this world without knowing it, and now that they know it, they possess an infinitely better. God showed here the riches of his mercy—he asks of them but a momentary suffering, and that over, they wake up in Abraham’s Bosom: no further trial awaits them, they are in spotless innocence, and the glory due to a soldier who died to save the life of his Prince belongs eternally to them.

They died for Jesus’ sake—therefore their death was a real Martyrdom, and the Church calls them by the beautiful name of The Flowers of the Martyrs, because of their tender age and their innocence. Justly, then, does the ecclesiastical Cycle bring them before us today, immediately after the two valiant Champions of Christ, Stephen and John. […]

Yes, God did for these Innocents, who were immolated on his Son’s account, what he is doing every moment now by the sacrament of regeneration, in the case of children who die before coming to the use of reason. We, who have been baptized by water, should be all the more ready to honor these Little Ones, who were baptized in their own blood, and thereby associated to all the mysteries of the Divine Infancy. […]

In the midst of the joy, which at this holy time fills both heaven and earth, the Holy Church of Rome forgets not the lamentations of the Mothers, who beheld their Children cruelly butchered by Herod’s soldiers. She hears the wailing of Rachel, and condoles with her; and unless it be a Sunday, she suspends on this Feast some of the manifestations of the joy which inundates her soul during the Octave of Jesus’ Birth. The Red Vestments of a Martyr’s Day would be too expressive of that stream of infant blood which forbids the Mothers to be comforted, and joyous White would ill suit their poignant grief; she therefore vests in Purple, the symbol of mournfulness. The Gloria in excelsis, the Hymn she loves so passionately during these days when Angels come down from heaven to sing it—even that must be hushed today: and in the Holy Sacrifice, she sings no Alleluia. In this, as in everything she does, the Church acts with an exquisite delicacy of feeling. Her Liturgy is a school of refined christian considerateness.


And here we present two other hymns: the first by St Bede, and the second a Sequence used in German Missals:


Hymn of St Bede

Let us chant the hymn of the martyred Innocents, whom earth lost and wept, but heaven gained and was glad.

Their Angels see the Face of the Eternal Father, and sing the Hymn of their Martyrs, lauding the grace of God.

A cruel king destroyed them, the merciful Creator received them, making them happy with himself in the brightness of the never-ending kingdom.

He that gives to each elect a mansion in his Father’s house, places the Innocents massacred by the impious king, on thrones in heaven above.

Herod was angry, and slew every child below the age of two, staining with their sacred blood the borders of Bethlehem.

Precious in the sight of Jesus shone the innocent death of these his faithful ones; and Angels came down to carry them to the land of heaven.

A voice in Rama was heard, lamentation of the poignant grief, and Rachel shed a flood of tears over her infant sons,

Who now rejoice in endless triumph, for they overcame their torments, whose cruel blows filled Rama with the voice of wailing.

Fear not, Little Flock, the prowling Lion’s tooth! for the Good Shepherd will give you the pastures of heaven.

Following the spotless Lamb of God in the path of purity, ye need not fear, dear Little Flock, a robber’s wicked grasp.

They that sow in tears, reap eternal joy: and the Creator wipes every tear away from the mourner’s face.

O truly happy Bethlehem! city wherein our Redeemer was born, and where he was presented with the first Martyrs—the first Victims dedicated to the new-born King.

No, Bethlehem! thou shalt not be called the least among the thousand cities, for out of thee came the divine Leader! O truly blessed City!

Around his throne now stand, glittering in their fair bright robes, these Innocents that washed their garments red in the Blood of the Lamb.

They had sighed and wept for the kingdom of the everlasting world: now they stand joyfully before God, and bright in their robes of glory are ever signing his praise.


Sequence from certain German Missals

Sound forth, O Children! your shrill melodies

In honour of the holy joys of the Innocents.

The Infant Jesus took them this day to the realms above,

When the rabid madness of Herod’s craft slew them, 

Though guilty of no crime:

They were the children in the city,

And all the confines of Bethlehem,

Two years old and under,

Dating from the time of their birth.

The unhappy King Herod, fearing the kingdom of the Infant Christ,

Trembles from head to foot, and brandishes his sword with his haughty hand.

He, with his troubled mind, seeks for the King of Light and heaven;

That by his weapons he might put to death him that gives life:

For his eye cannot look upon the bright Light of him who searcheth clouded hearts.

Herod is inflamed with rage, and cruelly plots the death of thousands of Innocents.

A wicked chieftain takes with him a troop of soldiers, and plunges his sword in the tender flesh.

The pure stream of infant veins (for blood is scarce yet formed) flows upon the mothers’ breasts.

The brutal enemy tears the flesh with gaping wounds, and on the throat inflicts a fatal gash:

Trampling out life, e’er the tender age is sinewed into strength.

Oh! how glorious the bodies of these murdered Innocents!

How happy the Mothers of such Children!

O lovable legion of Innocents!

O holy infant combats fought for Christ!

The Babes lay slain in thousands, and from their tender limbs there flows a stream of sinless blood.

The citizens of heaven come forth to meet the snow-white troop that takes the crown of Life, won by a singular victory.

We most devoutly beseech thee, O Jesus! who camest to reform the world,

That thou grant us to enjoy for everlasting ages the glory of the Innocents.

Amen.


All ye Holy Innocents: Pray for us!

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