Christmas and the Slaughter of the Innocents

Magi and King Herod

In Matthew 2:13-23, we encounter a Christmas story not much celebrated commercially: the slaughter of the Holy innocent children by King Herod.  

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.” When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.”

Holy Family’s flight into Egypt

Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying:  A voice was heard in Ramah, Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, Refusing to be comforted, Because they are no more.”

Mothers lamenting the slaughter of the innocent children.

Now when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child’s life are dead.” Then he arose, took the young Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel.  But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee.  And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, “He shall be called a Nazarene.”

Holy Family flight to Egypt

St. Nikolai Velimirovic (d. 1956)  comments:


“Herod, the slave of all the God-hating passions on earth, was wroth and, in his fury, sent his executioners to slay all the children in Bethlehem and all the surrounding region, of two years old and under. This, that Pharaoh had done to all the children in Egypt, Herod now did to the children in Bethlehem. It often happens with us that we commit the sin we condemn in others. It is not said that the executioners slew the children but that Herod did. The Evangelist means in this way to place the whole blame for this bloody act on him who ordered it – on Herod, and not on those who carried it out. Herod was responsible before God for it, not the executioners. Such a satanic plan was not likely to have occurred to the executioners – to slaughter so many innocent children in order to kill the One who was in their way. Herod alone was guilty. The Evangelist seeks by this to teach us to beware of doing evil through others. If we incite anyone to kill, we have killed, and not he; if we incite anyone to commit adultery, we have done this, not he; if we incite anyone to commit any sort of sin, we are the sinners, not he. Were the Evangelist to record the sin of a man we had incited to sin, he would put our name, not his, as in this case he speaks of Herod alone as the murderer, and not the executioners, not even naming them. Herod sent and killed. He did not say whom Herod sent, but only that he sent. It is immaterial whom he sent because, at God’s judgment, it will be Herod alone who is summoned to answer for this crime.”Homilies, p 56)

Holy Family