Today, December 28, is the Feast of the Holy Innocents. It commemorates the decision of King Herod to slay boys in Bethlehem and its environs two years of age or younger because he felt betrayed by the Magi, who failed to report back to him the whereabouts of “the newborn King of the Jews” (Matthew 2:16-18).
Our liturgical calendar is not chronological: we mark the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents before we celebrate the Epiphany (and, in the United States, we push that Solemnity from its historical place as Twelfth Night to an adjacent Sunday).
But, from early on, the Church immediately began marking, in the days immediately following Jesus’ birth, the various ways one might follow Him. Because “there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life” (John 15:13), December 26, the very next day after Christmas—observed in many parts of the world as the “Second Day” of Christmas—is the feast of the Church’s first martyr, St. Stephen. He was a martyr of will, love, and blood.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
On December 27, the Church honors the only one of the 12 Apostles not to die a martyr’s death: St. John the Evangelist. Having lived a life consecrated to Christ and, by tradition, one of virginal purity, John may not have been killed, but that doesn’t mean people didn’t try (e.g., being given a poisoned chalice) or that he was not otherwise persecuted (Patmos was not a Greek island vacation). “If anyone would follow me, let him take up his cross” (Matthew 16:24-26) applies to all Christ’s disciples, even if they die in their beds. He was a martyr of will and love.
Finally, we come to December 28, the Feast of the Holy Innocents. They died in witness to Christ even if they didn’t know it. They were martyrs by blood.
I focus on December 28 because I am concerned we not lose sight of its significance.
I have long maintained that this day should be designated as a national day to commemorate those who die as a result of abortion. Roe’s harvest was 60 million-plus lives. In his excellent forthcoming book, The Story of Abortion in America, Marvin Olasky does a superb job of showing how Americans have always been schizophrenic about abortion policy, documenting how, often—even when almost every state had protective pro-life legislation in place—authorities time and again looked the other way as abortionists plied their bloody trade, often incentivized by “political contributions” or plain old kickbacks to ensure that diverted gaze.
Even in the wake of Dobbs and the welcome demise of Roe, abortion continues in America and around the world, often abetted by Catholics. So, America’s atonement for the blood on its hands is not over.
Yes, the bishops have designated the weekday closest to January 22 as the “Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of the Unborn,” and that task must continue, even with Roe in its deserved place in the junk bin of Constitutional deformities. It is especially relevant next month, when Roe would have been 50 years old. But (a.) abortion has become a worldwide, not just an American phenomenon, and (b.) the nexus of slaughter of the innocents to the life of Christ Himself—the stuff of the Holy Innocents—should not be overlooked.
But my concerns about December 28 are far more immediate.
In 2020, both papal biographer Austen Ivereigh and Jesuit Father James Martin used December 28 to tweet about—immigration. I’ve attacked this attempt to shift the meaning of this day: the Church’s vestments are red because the children bled and were dead, not because the Holy Family fled.
There’s always been a certain quarter in the Church, especially in the United States, that’s blanched at calling murder murder. Abortion has always been the one issue that was a burr in their political saddles, stymieing efforts to make common cause with the political Left. Finessing that problem has, therefore, always been important to that quarter.
Sometimes it happens by piling together all sorts of “life issues” on top of each other, so that the practical result is that the killing of the unborn gets buried amidst immigration reform and other things. Perhaps some are motivated by a purely religious “consistent ethic of life,” but I admit (a.) the leveling effect of the seamy garment of life never convinced me of its value and (b.) I have always had a suspicion that there were other incentives admixed in the professed ethical motives of its proponents.
In tandem with this is usually the effort to downplay, if not deny, that abortion is the “preeminent” life issue of our times. We have at least one American cardinal and no small plurality of the American hierarchy claiming that. For men who otherwise claim fidelity to the Second Vatican Council, its optic of looking at the “signs of the times” seems sorely lacking in their apertures, because—with the Guttmacher Institute asserting there are 73 million abortions worldwide per annum, no small part of which take place in relatively affluent lands that have long been evangelized by the Christian Gospel—one can hardly deny that global killing of the unborn today rivals if not exceeds in reach what slavery once was.
Post-Dobbs, I fear there will be efforts from some of these quarters to “move on” from our “narrow” prolife focus to “expand our horizons.” No doubt, Pope Francis will be invoked, particularly his concerns about migration and refugees.
Don’t take that bait. The blood of 73 million lives each year cry worldwide to Heaven for vengeance. What we remember on December 28 is the death of male boys in Bethlehem because they were babies and they were boys and because among them their might have been a threat to the powers that be, so they were all inconvenient.
That antilife mentality did not end on Herod’s own deathbed; it is alive and well and propagated in no small segment of culture-forming opinion today. While every society has killed, it was the “achievement” of the 20th century that various societies began treating murder—of the unborn, the elderly, the ill, unwanted minorities—as public policy and deemed it “good.”
The fact that, the straitjacket of Roe having been removed, American voters in California, Michigan, and Vermont, on November 8, freely chose—for the first time in U.S. history—to write abortion into law as a Constitutional right indicates Dobbs is hardly the end of this fight. Indeed, we can probably adapt Churchill in recognizing, “this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
On December 28, we should not lose sight of that perspective by substituting other causes. We can pray we are at “the end of the beginning” and keep our eyes firmly fixed—where it matters most, in Church, on our knees—on where we still have to go.
[Image: Sacro Monte di Varallo (Varallo Sesia, Italy), Chapel 11 – Massacre of the Innocents, Polychrome clay statues by Giacomo Paracca, ca 1587]