How Do we Honor the Holy Innocents?

The choice of readings for today’s Mass perplexed me. December 28th is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, Martyrs, as recounted in Matthew 2:13-18. It’s a grim feast that comes three days after Christmas every year.

On the day we remember the Bethlehem boys aged two-and-under slaughtered by Herod in an unhinged, prophylactic power grab, the Church pairs that account with Psalm 124, beginning with these words:

Had not the LORD been with us,
when people rose against us,
Then they would have swallowed us alive,
for their fury blazed against us.
Then the waters would have engulfed us,
the torrent overwhelmed us.

How is a psalm praising God for rescue appropriate on the day we remember murdered children?  The Matthew account itself cites Jeremiah’s agonizing description of “Rachel weeping for her children,” refusing to be consoled.  No wonder, if this is the thin consolation offered: that someone else’s child was saved. Mary and Joseph’s child, yes, but still a nightmare to the grieving parents.

The psalm smacks us right up against theodicy and the problem of evil.  “Had not the LORD been with us . . .” What does that imply?  Was God not with the toddlers of Bethlehem?  How do we praise God for rescue (which we should, if rescued) without implying that those who perished were somehow abandoned, unworthy?

There’s a song called “I Know Something About God’s Grace” whose theology drives me batty. The lyrics begin:  I know something about God’s grace; I know something about God’s amazing grace.”  So far, so good; then it runs off the rails. “It could have been me with no food to eat; it could have  been me with no place to sleep, if not for the grace of God.”  I know it’s a musical riff on the common expression “There but for the grace of God . . . ” And yet . . . those guys sleeping on the steam vents in downtown Philly—are they devoid of grace?  Or are they wrapped in it?

Maybe the problem is with our casual use of the word “grace.”  Do we believe that God’s unmerited favor comes in the form of this-worldly bonuses like a Christian comp & benefits package?  Or is grace more interior, like a spiritual attitude adjustment?  OR is grace what holds us up every single day, whether we’re aware of it or not?

Today is not the day to figure that out.  Today is the day to admit that our warm language around grace and blessing leaves a lot of people out in the cold.  Today is the day to figure out how to be a touch of grace for someone else.  Today is the day to stand with the innocents (and the not so innocents) who are in the process of being swallowed alive or otherwise engulfed by the storms of life.  

That’s how we honor the Holy Innocents—today and every day.

P.S. If you are similarly intrigued by these questions, I highly recommend an intense little book by Brother Joe Hoover, SJ called O Death Where Is Thy Sting (see my Goodreads review here), as well as the books, blog posts, and podcasts of Kate Bowler, author of Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved).

5 thoughts on “How Do we Honor the Holy Innocents?

  1. Rose M says:

    This is so very real and full of truth. I can’t tell you how many times someone has said point-blank to my husband that they’re thankful that they can get up in yes morning and walk when they see him in his wheelchair. Which is just so *facepalm* and I know people mean well so I just try to roll with that good intent but that is the feeling that is being pretty specifically verbalized. That God is good because good things happen or that God is good because I’m not that guy over there. I wish they would ask him about his life and his strong faith rather than thinking that he is someone to be pitied (which he would be happy to tell you he is not). Most importantly I agree with you so much that we have to keep finding and standing with the innocents. I love Kate Bowler! And I will look up the book by Brother Joe Hoover. I think about these things often…what you wrote is just so true.


    • Holly Dickson-Ramos says:

      Christine, can I pull some long quotes from this post and use them on my own blog (acknowledging the source, of course)? Many of those who read my blog ( are people struggling with physical or emotional challenges, and I think they will appreciate your words.


  2. Robert McChesney says:

    Thoughtful and real!

    I gave my sister Louise Kate’s new book for Christmas. Thanksforthetip!

    Robert W. McChesney, S.J.

    On Tue, Dec 28, 2021, 3:32 PM Christine Marie Eberle wrote:

    > Christine Eberle posted: ” The choice of readings for Mass today perplexed > me. December 28th is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, Martyrs, as recounted > in Matthew 2:13-18. It’s a grim feast that comes three days after Christmas > every year. On the day in which we remember the B” >


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