The feast of the beloved Disciple is followed by that of the Holy Innocents. The Crib of Jesus, where we have already met and venerated the Prince of Martyrs and the Eagle of Patmos, has today standing round it a lovely choir of little Children, clad in snow-white robes, and holding green branches in their hands.
The Divine Babe smiles upon them: he is their King; and these Innocents are smiling upon the Church of God. Courage and Fidelity first led us to the Crib; Innocence now comes, and bids us tarry there.
Herod intended to include the Son of God amongst the murdered Babes of Bethlehem. The Daughters of Rachel wept over their little ones, and the land streamed with blood; but the Tyrant's policy can do no more: it cannot reach Jesus, and its whole plot ends in recruiting an immense army of Martyrs for heaven. These Children were not capable of knowing what an honour it was for them to be made victims for the sake of the Saviour of the world; but, the very first instant after their immolation, all was revealed to them: they had gone through this world without knowing it, and now that they know it, they possess an infinitely better. God showed here the riches of his mercy: he asks of them but a momentary suffering, and that over, they wake up in Abraham's Bosom: no further trial awaits them, they are in spotless innocence, and the glory due to a soldier who died to save the life of his Prince, belongs eternally to them.
They died for Jesus’ sake; therefore, their death was a real Martyrdom, and the Church calls them by the beautiful name of The Flowers of the Martyrs, because of their tender age and their innocence. Justly then does the ecclesiastical Cycle bring them before us today, immediately after the two valiant Champions of Christ, Stephen and John. The connection of these three Feasts is thus admirably explained by St. Bernard: “In St. Stephen, we have both the act and the desire of Martyrdom; in St. John, we have but the desire; in the Holy Innocents, we have but the act…Will any one doubt whether a crown was given to these Innocents?... If you ask me what merit could they have that God should crown them? let me ask you, what was the fault, for which Herod slew them? What! is the mercy of Jesus less than the cruelty of Herod? and whilst Herod could put these Babes to death, who had done him no injury, Jesus may not crown them for dying for Him?”
“Stephen, therefore, is a Martyr by a Martyrdom of which men can judge, for he gave this evident proof of his sufferings being felt and accepted, that, at the very moment of his death, his solicitude both for his own soul and for those of his persecutors increased; the pangs of his bodily passion were less intense than the affection of his soul’s compassion, which made him weep more for their sins than for his own wounds. John was a Martyr, by a Martyrdom which only Angels could see, for the proofs of his sacrifice being spiritual, only spiritual creatures could ken them. But, the Innocents were Martyrs to none other eye save thine, O God! Man could find no merit; Angel could find no merit: the extraordinary prerogative of thy grace is the more boldly brought out. From the mouth of the Infants and the Sucklings thou hast perfected praise. The praise the Angels give thee, is: Glory be to God in the highest, and peace on earth to men of good will; it is a magnificent praise, but I make bold to say, that it is not perfect, till He cometh who will say: Suffer Little Children to come unto me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven; and in the mystery of my mercy, there shall be peace to men that cannot even use their will.”