The Massacre of the Innocents

When Wisdom’s acolytes did not return to divulge the location of the Child who would be King, Herod “sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under” Many, if not most, are incapable of complete recovery from such horrific loss.. . . . It is instructive that the massacre of the innocents follows rather than precedes the Christ Child’s coming. The joy of Advent neither prevented nor ameliorated the tragedy. Fiona Givens, “On Solace”

This was going to be a post about the theme of love, traditionally observed on the second Sunday of the Advent Season, and perhaps it will be still. But before we get to love, we have to go through grief and work through one of the most difficult parts of the Advent narrative. We have to talk about the deaths of children.

According to the New Testament, soon after the Christ Child was born, the evil King Herod, in an attempt to kill the child of prophecy and preserve his own reign, ordered the deaths of all Jewish children under the age of two. This event, traditionally referred to as “The Massacre of the Innocents,” is depicted in Matthew 2: 16:

Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.

Tradition holds that 14,000 children were killed in this massacre, and it serves as the backdrop for the Holy Family’s escape into Egypt. It also serves as the text for one of the saddest and most beautiful of the traditional English Christmas songs, the Coventry Carol, which takes the form of a lullaby that mothers sing to their children to try to put them to sleep so Herod’s soldiers won’t discover them:

Lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Lullay, Thou little tiny Child.
By, by, lully, lullay.

O sisters, too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day;
This poor Youngling for whom we sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Herod the King, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day;
His men of might, in his own sight,
All children young, to slay.

Then woe is me, poor Child, for Thee,
And ever mourn and say;
For Thy parting, nor say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay

It took me a long time to feel comfortable listening to the lyrics of this song. In fact, I am still not comfortable. The image of mothers singing a lullaby to their children in a last desperate attempt to save their young lives just guts me every time I conjure it up. The melody is similarly haunting, and the overall effect has me wondering whether a public annunciation of Christ’s birth was worth the lives of these children. Surely God could have just done it quietly and made sure that Herod never found out.

The same biblical text is the basis of one of the most famous works by the 16th century Dutch painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder, also called “Massacre of the Innocents,” which you can see below:

In this great painting, we see many of the elements of Matthew’s story–people in turmoil, soldiers, frightened parents–all transported to a Nordic landscape. What we do not see, however, are any innocents being massacred. We see a woman in the center of the painting weeping over a loaf of bread, a soldier cutting the throat of a goose, and a number of other pictures of rowdy soldiers destroying property and livestock. Why would a great master paint the Massacre of the Innocents without the massacre of any innocents?

The answer, of course, is that he did no such thing. He painted gruesome scenes of children being murdered. But not long after he died, the Holy Roman Emperor Rudoplh II ordered his artists to paint over all of the depictions of children being killed. He did not want to cause people distress–or to blemish the joy of the Advent season. Thanks to modern infrared technology, we can actually see what lay behind the largely inoffensive images that Rudolph’s redactors created:

Let’s compare the edited Bruegel painting to one of the most powerful pieces of public art of the last decade: The Last Lockdown, a statue designed by Manuel Oliver, whose son Joaquin was killed in Parkland, Florida, in one of the (far too many) Massacres of the Innocents that we have experienced in our nation. This statue of a young child huddling in terror under a desk forces us to see something that we would rather not see and to\confront something that we would rather not confront. It tells us that we cannot look away. We live in a country where children are regularly subjected to “active shooter drills” and taught to hide under their desks–and where thousands of children have died in their schools. To look away is to normalize it and accept it. And we cannot do that without compromising our humanity.

I had the opportunity to bring this statue up last night in a conversation with my daughter, a college Freshman and passionate music major, who introduced me to a new-ish piece of chamber music called “The Eyes of the World Are Upon You” by Texas composer Jennifer Jolley–a composition commissioned to commemorate the August 1, 1966 shooting spree that killed 17 people at the University of Texas at Austin.

As I talked with my daughter and several of her friends–all of whom called this the most powerful piece of music they had ever heard–it became clear to me that, whatever their personal beliefs, modern artists like Jolley and Oliver are engaged in a deeply Christian kind of art. Through their chosen media, they are compelling us to acknowledge events that are profoundly sad and deeply disturbing–which is something that we must do if we are to fulfill the Christian call to love those who suffer–and the injunction to build the Kingdom of God.

When innocents are massacred–and they are massacred every day–we have a moral responsibility not to look away. When children are killed in their schools, or when they die in cages at the border, or when they suffer needlessly from the choices of adults, we must acknowledge the suffering and stare its consequences squarely in the face. We all have a powerful urge to act like Rudolph II and paint over the horrible things–to soften them or look away so we can go on believing in a world we can predict and control. Christmas is a beautiful season–why ruin it by bringing up the massacre that it occasioned. Our lives are peaceful and good, why dwell on the tragedies?

I feel quite certain that Matthew included the story of the Massacre of the Innocents in his account of the Advent to remind us that a great part of discipleship is to mourn with those who mourn and comfort those who stand in need of comfort. And to do that–to really love people–we must acknowledge their loss and look clearly upon their pain. We can’t look away, no matter how uncomfortable we feel, because we have been called, above and beyond anything else, to love.


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    I once reflected on this episode, going more to whether the account is historical, here:

  2. We must also not look away from the millions of innocents killed in the womb.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    I reflected a little bit on the massacre once here:

  4. Obviously, this is why God gave us double-reed instruments.

    Thank you, Michael.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    (Sorry for the duplicate comment; the first one didn’t originally show up for me.)

  6. thegenaboveme says:

    It’s hard for me to form a response to descriptions of slaughter, but I do agree that we cannot turn away from violence towards others (in all its forms). We have a duty to see it, prevent it, and hold the aggressors accountable. And particularly, to examine our own hearts to see how we promote systemic violence or choose to look away because saying something puts us at risk of harm (in one form or another).

  7. Thank you for this post, Michael. I confess I’m a bit of cynic on this topic. Christians are often fond of making a connection between the passage in Matthew and an earlier slaughter which resulted in baby Moses being sent down the river to survive and become a prophet. Of course, that story later includes revenge when Moses’s god has lots of Egyptian children killed.

    It seems to me, in religion especially, we should consider avoiding wholly lofty depictions of family. Without flinching, we need to address the reality of children being brought into the world as a commodity; in the context of religion, treated as a resource to benefit parents and church leaders. I don’t think that reality has to be regarded as all good or all bad (but it should sound a little creepy).

    In any case, painting over a painter’s hard work makes me grimace. If you can stomach neither a work of art, nor getting rid of it, just put it an archive and move on. Also, thank you for sharing the video of Jennifer Jolley’s wonderful orchestral work. I found it beautiful and haunting.

  8. it's a series of tubes says:

    “we live in a country… where thousands of children have died in their schools.”

    That’s a surprisingly high number, do you have a cite? Best data I can find seems like a few hundred since Columbine. To be clear, even one is a tragedy.

    This is a good post, but your politically slanted examples limit its effectiveness. As noted by another commentor, millions killed in vivo in this country alone; millions more each year slaughtered by a simple lack of food or clean water…

  9. The number of dead students from school shootings is less than a thousand since 1966. If you expand it to all public locations then the number probably doubles. I can appreciate for Michael that the school environment is the locus of his daily experience and so it’s natural to understand why the expansion of school shootings hits home for him. For adolescents, after unintentional injury, homicide has been the leading cause of death over the last 3 decades, followed closely by suicide.

    We experience the data we see in the tragedies that are vividly portrayed in news coverage and thus the anecdotes become a distorted reality for many. But it doesn’t change the fact that across our country millions of young children like my 6 year old regularly cower under their desks as active shooter drills are run with Principals shaking the doors and teachers telling children to stay quiet. It does not change the fact that each time a new school shooting is announced my 17 year old daughter isolates herself for a few hours in quiet tears as she ponders “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Which any honestly introspective American teen recognizes as their personal mantra in such moments. So as Gary Wills once said, we continue to feed our Moloch because as a people we refuse to accept responsibility for solving this problem. So the terror to the living innocents is exponentially expanded by the slaughtering of a few.

    Our modern sensibility, technologies and politics endanger the lives of and lead to the deaths of millions of children born and unborn worldwide every year. And to that Michael’s message speaks loudly.

  10. Bellamy Brown says:

    A moving piece but may I make a small correction. Most reputable authorities ( Anchor Bible commentary on Matt , Catholic Encyclopedia and Wikipedia) all agree that if it took place the number of male children in a small Jewish village under the age of 2 might be 12 or so at the very most. This small number ,tragic as it may be ,is probably why the incident is not recorded anywhere else

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