An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church

Holy Innocents, The

Male infants slaughtered by King Herod the Great in Bethlehem in an unsuccessful attempt to kill the “king of the Jews.” The Gospel of Matthew, ch. 2, records that the wise men, or Magi, from the east were seeking the child who was born king of the Jews. They had “observed his star at its rising,” and came to pay him homage. They told this to Herod, which frightened him “and all Jerusalem with him.” Herod feared that the young “king” would threaten his throne. The chief priests and scribes told Herod that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. They also told him when the star had appeared. Herod told the wise men to search diligently for the child in Bethlehem and tell him when they found the child. He said he wanted to go to the child and pay him homage. The wise men found the child Jesus and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But the wise men were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and “they left for their own country by another road.” Herod was furious when he realized that he had been tricked by the wise men. He ordered the death of all male children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under. The child Jesus was not harmed because Joseph had been warned in a dream to escape to Egypt with Jesus and Mary. The feast of the Holy Innocents has been dated from the fourth century in Bethlehem and from the fifth century in North Africa and Rome. It is a major feast of the Episcopal calendar of the church year, observed on Dec. 28. The collect for this feast prays that God will receive “into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace” (BCP, p. 238). The hymns “In Bethlehem a newborn boy” (Hymn 246) and “Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child” (Hymn 247) are especially appropriate for the feast of the Holy Innocents.

Glossary definitions provided courtesy of Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY,(All Rights reserved) from “An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians,” Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, editors.