Throughout history, many faithful to the Catholic Church have experienced a great amount of suffering for their beliefs in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. As Paul the Apostle and Saint Timothy wrote in their epistle to the Philippians, “For to you has been granted, for the sake of Christ, not only to believe in him but also to suffer for him,” we as Catholics are called to suffer for Christ. In their suffering, some have paid the ultimate price and were killed for holding fast and being unwavering in their beliefs. Who were the first martyrs of the Church?
Tertullian, a second century Father of the Church, wrote that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” This phrase definitely holds true in the case of the Holy Innocents, the first Christian Martyrs. The Holy Innocents were all the male children of Bethlehem, aged two years and under, that King Herod ordered to be killed. When the Three Wise Men saw His star in the east, they left to travel to Judea in search of the newborn king. King Herod directed them to Bethlehem and asked they return to tell him who they discovered. After finding Jesus Christ, an angel appears to the Magi and tells them not to return to Herod, while Christ escaped to Egypt. After learning of the Magi’s deception, King Herod ordered all the male children aged two years and under of Bethlehem killed, so as to prevent a usurper to his throne.
“When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi, he became furious. He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi.” – Matthew 2:16
Saint of Augustine of Hippo wrote in his tenth sermon that the Holy Innocents were the first buds of martyrdom and seeds of the Church, they were martyrs not by will or love, but by blood alone. (Saint Stephen being the first martyr by will, love, and blood)
“The Church venerates these children as martyrs (flores martyrum); they are the first buds of the Church killed by the frost of persecution; they died not only for Christ, but in his stead” – Saint Augustine, sermo 10 de sanctis
There is some disagreement among Historians on how many Holy Innocents were martyred in Christ’s name. Greek Liturgy proposes 14,000 boys, Syrians texts have the number at 64,000, and some medieval writers go as far 144,000 children martyred as seen in the Book of Revelation.
“They were singing what seemed to be a new hymn before the throne, before the four living creatures and the elders. No one could learn this hymn except the hundred and forty-four thousand who had been ransomed from the earth.” – Revelation 14:3
The first feast honoring the Holy Innocents is first found in the Leonine Sacramentary of the year 485, along with Saint Stephen and Saint John. The feast historically has been kept within the octave of Christmas, because the Holy Innocents gave up their lives for the newborn Savior. Today, we celebrate the feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28th. Their Station Church is The Papal Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, believed to contain several bodies of the Holy Innocents.