At the office of Matins this morning, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, we hard read an excerpt from a sermon for the feast by St Bernard of Clairvaux. It is simple, direct and resonant even today:
Blessed is he who came in the name of the Lord! For the holy One born of Mary did not come in vain, but spread abroad abundantly the name and grace of holiness. Thence surely came the holiness of Stephen, of John, and of the Innocents. It is well for us that these three feasts are associated with the birthday of the Lord, for besides helping us to maintain our devotion, their coming one after another, as a kind of escort makes the fruit of our Lord’s birth more evident.
In these three solemnities, three kinds of holiness can be seen, and I think it would be hard to find among humans a fourth. In blessed Stephen we have a martyr both in will and deed; in blessed John we have the will alone; in the blessed Innocents the deed alone.
As for the Innocents, who could have any doubt about their reward? Surely, no one who believes that children born again in Christ receive divine adoption can doubt that these children slain for Christ are crowned among the martyrs. Otherwise, why did the Child who was born to help us, not to hurt us, allows these babes of his own age to be killed on his account? Since he could certainly have prevented their murder with a mere nod, he must have had some better thing in store for them. Therefore, as Baptism suffices for a child’s salvation even though he receives it without any act of will on his part, so also did the involuntary martyrdom of these children suffice to sanctify them.
Stephen was a martyr in human eyes. His willingness to suffer appears most clearly in the fact that on the point of death he was more concerned for his persecutors than for himself. John was a martyr in the sight of the angels who, being spiritual themselves, could see the spiritual proofs of his dedication.
But these, these Innocents, are clearly your own martyrs, O God; because they do not seem either to humans or angels to have earned any reward, your special favour to them is shown with greater clarity. Out of the mouths of children and of babes you have received perfect praise. The angels sang: Glory to God in the highest and peace to people of good will. That indeed is magnificent but I dare to say not perfect praise, which will be found only when He comes who said: Let the little children come to me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven. Then, through the mystery of God’s goodness, there will be peace even for people who cannot use their will.
The role of the will is important in Catholic theology, especially its moral theology. Full and free use of the will is required for full responsibility for any act, be it the negative (as in sin) or positive (as in marriage). Yet the Church numbers the Holy Innocents as martyrs even though they could will nothing, and were pure victims. St Bernard sees the answer lying not in the will of the Innocents but in the will of God. Though they could not will to die for Christ, they did in fact die in place of Christ. So, by the will of God, their death is part of the unfolding of the plan of salvation, enabling it just as much as the freely-willed cooperation of Mary and Joseph did. Is that itself enough for them to merit heaven? No; rather, it is Christ’s future dying for them (and for us!) that gives their sacrifice its merit and sanctifying power. The death of the Innocents in place of Christ is indeed a type and foreshadowing of Christ’s own death for them and for us. Thus did God will it to be, among the many possible ways he could have willed it.
Thus when we consider the Baptism of infants, so much disputed in recent centuries and even in the early Church, we can see one principle that supports it. Human will is not all-sufficient; the divine will is sufficient and efficient. While it may be that God will not disregard the free and full operation of human will (else we would not truly be free), he can exercise his will with regard to those who cannot exercise their own human wills. God willed that the Innocents’ death in place of Christ would be their sharing in Christ’s Cross and so their entrée into heavenly glory. Likewise, God wills that through the Church’s Baptism, itself a sharing in the death of Christ, infants receive the gift of heavenly glory till that day they would will to forsake it through sin.
The Innocents’, too, received Baptism, but by blood and not water. Is this straining things too much? If we think so, we might spend time reflecting on the fact that on the Cross, there flowed from Christ’s pierced side blood and water. In this blood and water from the Cross is established the whole sacramental and salvific economy of the Church. Whether we are bathed in the water only, the blood only, or in both, we are washed clean unto salvation.
The eternal perspective cannot remove the pain that the loss of an innocent occasions, not least for the parents. The darkness is there, but the divine light of faith shines through it, however dimly, to remind s that the Innocents, then and now, are in God’s hands.
A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Matt 2:18)
But in Christ we know – they are!