The story of the Innocents is only two verses long, but serves at least two purposes for Matthew’s story about Jesus. First, it exemplifies the furor of Herod the Great at the possibility that a King of the Jews had been born: after all, Herod, be decree of Rome, was ’King of the Jews’! It is easy to place this violence against the helpless within a host of such acts we know now and through human history. It is a sobering reminder amidst the joy and peace of Christmas just how far we have allowed that joy and peace to reach our world. But, for the Matthean gospel, concentration is not on the human capacity for violence when fearful of loss of power; concentration is on the earliest attempt at the life of one person, Jesus, already announced as the Christ, the Savior and God-with-us. Matthew, even at this early moment in his story, sees how the goodness of the Good News will be terribly marred by the future rejection of Jesus, when the attempt on his life will succeed. Second, Matthew looks to the little children in this picture with utter sympathy: harmless people caught up in the dark soul of crushing power. He is reminded of Jeremiah (31, 15) who spoke of Rachel weeping for her children because they were dead. Rachel, wife of Jacob, died in giving birth to Benjamin and was buried, according to one tradition, near Bethlehem, since her body could not be kept till her kinsfolk could bury her with her husband and relatives in Hebron. Jeremiah, aware of this tradition, imagines Rachel from her tomb seeing her descendents being forced into exlle and slavery by Assyria (721BC) - and she weeps for they are no more. Now, centuries later, Matthew sees in the merciless tragedy of Bethlehem’s little ones a new cause for Rachel, watching over her children from her tomb, to weep: again her children are no more.
John Kilgallen, SJ