The slaughter the Holy Innocents marred the mood created by the birth of the Prince of Peace. If the Child was hailed appreciatively by the simple shepherds and the wise Magi, his death was soon sought by the local king.
Herod in no way deserved the obsequious title bestowed on him: “The Great.” He was a petty tyrant who would stop at no cruelty to preserve his throne and retain the support of the Roman Emperors, although even they barely tolerated him. When he learned of the birth of the Messiah from the Magi, he pretended to show kindly interest in this newborn “king of the Jews”. But to prevent Jesus from ever becoming his political rival, he ordered that all boy-children in Bethlehem up to the age of two be massacred.
Jesus, of course, escaped the blood-letting. His hour to die had not yet come, so God through an angel told Joseph to hurry the Mother and Child out of the country. But the other boy infants of Bethlehem were slain. The number of victims may not have been more than a dozen since Bethlehem was a small village. But for that village the decimation was a disaster, and the “sobbing and loud lamentations” of its mothers rose to high heaven.
Since those days, many Christian mothers have lost children who for one reason or another were never baptized, or could not be baptized because of circumstances. This has been for them a true anxiety, because of the official teaching of the Church, following Christ, that “no one can enter into God’s Kingdom without being begotten of water and Spirit” (John 3:5). It is also a general concern of Christians in these days of the new Holocaust, the slaying of infants – by abortion – in the womb. Will those who suffer death before birth also be deprived by God of heaven because nobody baptized them?
People who are sincerely worried about the fate of unbaptized infants can find consolation in the feast of the Holy Innocents. These little victims were not old enough to receive baptism by desire. Although the Church venerates them as martyrs, they were certainly not typical martyrs. The typical martyr is one who chooses to obey God rather than man; and the Holy Infants had no such choice. Yet the Church has always held that they are in heaven, despite the lack of baptism of water or blood or desire. As St. Augustine said, they are the “flowers of the martyrs” – “the first buds of the Church killed by the frost of persecution; they died not only for Christ but in His stead.”
If Jesus demanded that all men – including infants – be baptized by water or at least by blood or by desire, we must heed that rule, and be most careful to have our children baptized as quickly as possible. That is vital. But the fact that God laid down this rule does not mean that He himself cannot make exceptions to it. Other passages in Scripture testify that Jesus died for all mankind, and that He wanted all mankind to be saved. These passages must be balanced with the passage on baptism; for they show the mercy of the Creator.
So let those who have lost children before their baptism, and those who worry about the salvation of the victims of abortion, console themselves with the thought that God does not forget any of His children. Who are we to place limits on His special generosity?
Since Vatican II there has been a lovely new Mass in our missal called “Funeral Mass of a child who died before Baptism.” The opening prayer will give comfort to the Rachels of today: “Father of all consolation, from whom nothing is hidden, You know the faith of these parents who mourn the death of their child. May they find comfort in knowing that he (she) is entrusted to your loving care.”
–Father Robert F. McNamara