The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

Cornelius a Lapide’s Commentary on Matthew 2:13-18

Posted by Dim Bulb on December 20, 2012

Mat 2:13  And after they were departed, behold an angel of the Lord appeared in sleep to Joseph, saying: Arise, and take the child and his mother, and fly into Egypt: and be there until I shall tell thee. For it will come to pass that Herod will seek the child to destroy him.

Note that these things did not happen immediately after the adoration of the Magi. Something must be supplied here from S. Luke 2:22. That is to say, after their departure on the 6th of January, Christ was taken to Jerusalem, and presented in the Temple; this was on the 2nd of February. From thence He returned to His own country, Nazareth, and from thence He fled into Egypt. So Euthymius and Maldonatus, in loc.; also Ammon and Tatian, in Harmon. Evangel.

Although S. Augustine, and Jansen after him, think that Christ went into Egypt from Judæa, and not from Galilee, because S. Matthew here says ver. 22, that when Joseph was returning from Egypt, he was minded to go into Judæa. And so they say that he had fled into Egypt from Judæa, but S. Matthew does not say this expressly, but, “When he heard that Archelaus reigned in Judæa in the stead of his father, Herod, he was afraid to go thither.” This, indeed, intimates that he was thinking of going into Judæa, probably to Jerusalem and the Temple, there to give God thanks for his safe return, as pious persons are wont to do.

The reason why Christ fled into Egypt, rather than into Assyria, or any other country is:—1. Because it was near to Judæa, and on account of the streams of the Nile, by which it was surrounded, and the sea, by which it was washed, secure from the attacks of enemies. Hence, when the Jews fled from the Chaldæans and the Assyrians, they went into Egypt.

2. Because Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and all the children of Israel, from whom Christ was sprung, dwelt in Egypt for two hundred years, and were called forth from thence by God, by the hand of Moses. And this was a type of the calling back of Christ out of Egypt, as S. Matthew adds, That it might be fulfilled which the Lord spoke by the prophet, saying: Out of Egypt have I called my son (Matt 2:15, Hosea 11:1). Especially because the Hebrews were delivered out of Egypt by the blood of the Paschal Lamb, which was a type of Christ. “That not without that region the sacrament of the one only Victim might be prepared, in which first the safe-giving sign of the slaying of the Lamb, and the Passover of the Lord, had been prefigured,” says S. Leo. (Serm. 3 de Epiph.)

3. Because Egypt was full of idols and superstitions. They worshipped dogs, crocodiles, cats, calves, rams, goats, and what not? Christ entered into Egypt that He might cleanse it from this filthiness, and consecrate it to the true God. Listen to S. Leo Serm. 2 de Epiph.): “Then also the Saviour was brought to Egypt, in order that a nation given up to ancient errors might now be signed for salvation nigh to come, for hidden grace, and that she which had not yet cast out superstition from her mind might receive truth as her guest.” Whence also Isaiah prophesies mystically of the same thing (xix. 1), saying: “Behold the Lord shall ascend upon a light cloud, and shall enter into Egypt, and all the idols of Egypt shall be moved at his presence.” And so S. Jerome and others relate that the idols of Egypt did, in truth, fall down when Christ came into it. (See my comment on this chapter of Isaiah.)

Sozomen (lib. 5, c. 20) relates that there was an ancient tradition that when Christ entered Hermopolis, a city of Egypt, a lofty tree bowed herself down, and worshipped Him as God. Many suchlike things are told, but because they are taken from an apocryphal book, called the “Infancy of the Saviour,” and from the Koran, it would seem that they ought to be rejected, as fabulous, or of doubtful credit.

For it will come to pass that Herod will seek the child to destroy him. The angel knew this by the revelation of God. He would also conjecture the same thing from the disposition of Herod, and his ambition of reigning. Herod’s suspicious, cruel, savage disposition is thus described by Josephus (lib. I, de Bell. Jud. c. 19): His fear made him timid, and incited him to every kind of suspicion. And from dread lest any who were obnoxious to him should escape him, he put to the torture many who were innocent.

Mat 2:14  Who arose, and took the child and his mother by night, and retired into Egypt: and he was there until the death of Herod:

Who arose, and took the child and his mother by night, (mark his prompt obedience) and retired into Egypt—that Christ might sanctify and bless it by His coming. Hence faith and sanctity so flourished in Egypt that it produced the Pauls, the Antonys, the Macarii, and those crowds of monks and anchorites who emulated the life of angels upon earth, as is seen in Eusebius, S. Jerome, Palladius, S. Athanasius, and the lives of the Fathers. Whence S. Chrysostom, in loc., says, that Christ converted Egypt into a paradise. “Heaven does not shine so brightly with the various choirs of the stars as Egypt is illuminated by its innumerable habitations of monks and virgins.” And Trismegistus, quoted by S. Austin (lib. 8, de Civ. Dei, c. 14), says, “Egypt is an image of Heaven, and the temple of the whole world.”

Adrichomius adds out of Brocardus and Saligniac, in his description of the Holy Land (page 47, n. 116), on the word Engaddi, that when Jesus fled out of Judæa into Egypt, He took balsam with Him. For Cleopatra, the friend of Antony, envying Herod the possession of such a treasure, obtained from Antony the privilege of transporting balsam-plants out of Judæa into Egypt. (See Josephus, lib. 5, Bell. Jud. c. I 3.) This was a just judgment of an avenging God, that Herod before was the possessor of the balsam, but that when he persecuted the child Jesus, Jesus fleeing into Egypt should, as it were, draw the garden of balsam after Him. For Jesus is the true and pure balsam of the soul, according as it is said, “Thy name is oil poured forth.” (Song i. Vulg.) Adrichomius adds, this garden in Egypt is irrigated by a small fountain, which has, however, a very copious supply of water; and the tradition is, that in it the Child Jesus was often placed by the Blessed Virgin, and that the holy Joseph often drew water from it, for himself and his holy spouse, when they were in Egypt; and that it is therefore held in great veneration by the inhabitants of the country.

Anselm asserts that Christ, when in Egypt, dwelt in a city called Heliopolis, or the city of the sun. In short, this flight of Christ was a mark, not of fear, but of prudence and fortitude. Hear Chrysologus (Serm. 50): “So Christ was born that He might make man anew; and that He might recall the fugitives, He fled. And if He himself wandered, so that He might call back the sheep which was wandering upon the mountains, how shall He not flee to bring again His flying people?” And shortly afterwards, “The refuge of all things fled, the help of all things lies hid, the strength of all things fears, the defence of all things defends not himself.” And again—”When the valiant warrior flies in battle, it is of design, not fear. When God fled from man, it was a mystery, not from dread.”

Tropologically: Christ fled into Egypt that He might teach us to despise exile, and that we, as pilgrims and exiles on the earth, might pant after and strive for heaven as our true country. Whence Peter Chrysologus says (Serm. 115), “Christ fled that He might make it more tolerable for us, when we have to flee in persecution.” S. Gregory Nazian. (Orat. 28) says—”Every land, and no land is my country.” No land was Gregory’s country, because heaven was his country. Again, every land was his country, because he looked upon the whole world as his country. Thus Socrates, when he was asked what countryman he was, replied, “A citizen of the world.” S. Basil said the same, as Nazian. testifies (Orat. 20)—”In every land the brave man is as much at home as fishes in the sea.”

Mat 2:15  That it might be fulfilled which the Lord spoke by the prophet, saying: Out of Egypt have I called my son.

He cites Hosea 11:1. See my comment on that prophet, where I have fully expounded the passage.

Tropologically: S. Chrysostom, in loc., says, that God weaves, as it were, a fair and variegated crown out of the prosperous and adverse circumstances of the life of Christ and Christians. When Joseph saw his wife great with child, he was sorely troubled: but forthwith an angel came to him, and put an end to his suspicion, and drove away his fear. Then came the joyful adoration of the Magi, but this was followed by the persecution of Herod, and the flight into Egypt.

It cannot be doubtful that when the Egyptians saw the sanctity of the Blessed Virgin and Joseph, and had had frequent opportunities of converse and intercourse with them, they came to know, worship, and love the true God. The Roman Martyrology assigns the 7th of January to the return of Christ from Egypt. Some say that he was three years in Egypt, some seven, others eight. But nothing is certain.

Mat 2:16  Then Herod perceiving that he was deluded by the wise men, was exceeding angry: and sending killed all the menchildren that were in Bethlehem, and in all the borders thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.

When Herod saw that the wise men did not return, he supposed that they were under a delusion, and had not found Christ, and were therefore ashamed to return. But when he heard of the things which had happened at the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, on the 2nd of February, how holy Simeon and Anna had openly professed Him to be the Messiah—that is, “a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of the people of Israel”-he then saw that he had been mocked by the Magi, and belched forth his burning wrath upon all the children. For, as S. Chrysostom says, “Unquenchable is the anger which jealousy of the rival of a crown enkindles. Like a wounded wild beast, it tears in pieces whatever meets the eye, as if the cause of his wounds.”

Herod’s inordinate ambition for retaining and augmenting the kingdom of Judæa drove him to this horrible infanticide. He knew from the Scribes that the time of Messiah was near at hand, because the sceptre of Judah was transferred to himself, an alien. And he himself was ambitious of the title, and told the Jews that he was their promised Messiah. And he built them that magnificent Temple, rivalling Solomon’s, of which the Jews said to Christ, Six and forty years was this temple in building, and wilt thou raise it up in three days? But vainly did he covet the name of Messiah; for Messias was to spring out of Judah, and was the promised son and heir of David. But Herod was sprung from the Idumæans, who were the Jews’ constant enemies. Herod then, becoming aware that the true Messiah was born, and had been indicated to the Magi by a star, destined Him to death. And when he learnt from the Scribes that He was born in Bethlehem, but knew not in what family, or house, he slew all the infants of Bethlehem. But see here the just judgment of God, by which it came to pass that Herod, by that very act, confirmed the kingdom to Christ, and took it away from himself. For, as a punishment of his wickedness, Herod slew his own sons, who would have succeeded him in his kingdom, and in the same year, shortly after this massacre of the infants and his son Antipater, he himself was eaten of worms, and died just before the Passover. Again, Christ escaped the massacre of the infants by flying into Egypt; and from thence, by degrees, His name, and kingdom, and glory increased. Yea, the infants slain by Herod out of hatred of the Messiah, by their very death attested that Christ was born.

Tropologically: Herod is the devil, who strives to cut off infants—that is, those who are weak in faith and virtue, also the first inspirations from God, and good thoughts, before they have become strong and increased. “Whence if he slay the little ones,” says S. Leo (Serm. 2 de Epiph.), “he appears to himself to kill Jesus, which indeed he strives to do without ceasing, whilst he endeavours to deprive those newly born again of the Holy Spirit, and to kill, as it were, the infancy of tender faith.”

 From two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. The Greek is, α̉πὸ διετιάς—i.e., from two years. The Syriac and Arabic give this turn to it, from the son of two years. The Egyptian, from two years and under. Thus, also, the Persian version. For, diligently inquired, the Greek has ρ̉κρίβωσε, accurately searched out.

You will ask why he slew all the children under two years old, especially since many are of opinion that Herod slew them immediately after the departure of the Magi—as soon, that is, as he had heard of Christ’s Presentation in the Temple. And this was before the Passover, when Christ was three months old? Jansen, Maldonatus, Baronius, and others reply, that he did it out of his intense fear of losing his kingdom through Messiah, and so extended the three months from Christ’s birth to two years. If you object that Matthew says this slaughter was made from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the Magi, they answer that the expression, according to the time, &c., must be referred, not to the words, from two years old, but to, from under, so as to signify that Herod made, not a beginning, but only a termination of slaughtering the children, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the Magi, that, indeed, he should not further kill infants who were born subsequent to those thirteen days which had elapsed after the appearance of the star which indicated the birth of Christ; meaning that Herod slew all the infants from two years old because he was very sagacious and cruel; and below two years old, according to the time which he had carefully inquired of the Magi, because he excepted only those from slaughter who were born after the time at which the star had declared the birth of Christ; for he felt secure that none of those who were born after the star could be Messiah, and give him cause of apprehension.

But it seems scarcely credible that one so ambitious and fearful as Herod should have wished to kill infants born two years before the appearing of the star, and yet have spared those who were born a few days after its appearance, when there would be an equal or greater reason for suspecting that Christ might be amongst these last, especially in the case of such a very suspicious person as Herod. Whence Bede, the Gloss, Dionysius, and Barradi think that he killed the little infants who were born after as well as before the appearing of the star. But why did he slay infants born almost two years before the star appeared? for there could be no suspicion that Christ was born amongst them. So that to kill them would have been not merely inhuman, but altogether foolish and brutish, and could have had no other effect than to expose him to universal infamy and execration—yea, to raise up every one in arms against him as an intolerable tyrant, and more like a wild beast than a human being.

I maintain, therefore, that not immediately, nor even in the same year in which the Magi came, did Herod put the infants to death; but in the following, or second year from the birth of Christ. And so the meaning is, that Herod slew the children from two years old, that is, who were two years old and under,—that is, those who had not yet reached that age; but who were a year, or so many months, or days old. That is, he slew all who had been born within two years from the rising of the star, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. Again, the expression, according to the time &c., might more strictly and precisely be taken thus: Herod did not take the whole time of the two years, but drew his conclusions from when the star appeared, which was the period whence the rising of the star began, but which was not completed. For Herod slew the children in the second year from the rising of the star, about the time of the Passover, or when Christ was about a year and three months old. Wherefore, he did not slay those who were born much before the fifteen months since which the star appeared. This is the force of the expression, he diligently inquired, in order that he might slay only those who had been born about the time when the star appeared, and not those who were born much before or much after, that he might not, with uselessly barbarous cruelty, slay more than might be necessary to secure the death of Christ.

So that, from two years old and under, &c., means the same thing as those who were fifteen months old. That was the time of the appearance of the star, and it continued for thirteen days, during which it went before the Magi to Bethlehem. Herod, therefore, would only seem to have slain the infants who were about fifteen months of age. For he believed the wise men, that Christ had been born at the time when his birth had been indicated by the star, and neither much before nor yet much after. So that he did not desire that any should be slain except such as were born about the time of the star’s appearance. And hence we may gather that the expression, from two years old and under, should be taken, not disjunctively, but unitedly, as when we say, “Two and three are five;” “All the planets are seven,” &c.

That this murder of the Innocents took place, not in the third month, but after the commencement of the second year, or about fifteen months from the birth of Christ, is the common opinion of Eusebius (in his Chronicle), Epiphanius (Hæres. 30), S. Augustine (Serm. de Epiph.), Encherius, Cedrinus, S. Anselm, Haymo, Hugo Victor, S. Thomas, &c. But some of these have not correctly distinguished either the rising of the star from the birth of Christ (for they say that it appeared to the Magi two years before Christ’s birth, as SS. Augustine and Chrysostom); or the birth of Christ and the appearance of the star from the adoration of the Magi; for they say that on account of the length of the journey, they arrived at Bethlehem, and worshipped Christ there, two years after His birth. So S. Epiphanius (lib. 2, Hæres. 30, contra Ebionæos), and the Imperfect Author; for it is far more probable that the star arose at the same time that Christ was born, that it might be, as it were, an indicator and standard-bearer of that event, and that the Magi came to Bethlehem in the same year in which the birth of Christ took place,—indeed thirteen days afterwards; and that Herod put off the infanticide, which he had already planned in his mind, until the year following, for reasons which I shall assign presently. The obvious meaning of S. Matthew’s narrative, and especially the expression, from two years old, require this meaning. Also the number of events which happened after the Adoration, and before the Flight into Egypt, require the same sense; for after the departure of the Magi, Christ was presented in the Temple on the 2nd of February. After that He went and dwelt in Nazareth, and from that place fled into Egypt, as is clear from S. Luke 2:22-39. And all this would occupy many weeks, or rather months.

What Nicephorus (lib. I, C. 14) and Cedrinus say is in favour of this opinion. They say that S. John Baptist, on account of this persecution, fled into the wilderness when he was in his second year, that is,—when he was not quite two years old. For the Baptist was born six months before Christ; so that, at the time of the Infanticide, he was a year and nine months old. Whence Nicephorus relates: “When John was a year and a half old, he was preserved in safety, with his mother Elizabeth, in a cave in the mountains, probably to escape the bloody hand of Herod.”

Again, Macrobius says, not from two years old, but under two years, the infants were slain by Herod. Those who were fifteen months would be under two years old. In addition to this, Lucius Dexter says, in his Chronicle: “In the third year of Christ (U.R.C. 754) Herod slays all the male children in Bethlehem and its neighbourhood.” It was the third year from the birth of Christ by beginning the year with the 1st of January.

You may ask why Herod put off the Infanticide until the second year from the rising of the star and the birth of Christ. It is answered:—

1. That he might the better, by degrees, inform himself of the birth, person, parentage, and dwelling of Christ. So the Gloss. Again, because he sought by all means to avoid the imputation of such hateful cruelty, by finding and killing Christ alone. S. Matthew appears to intimate this (ver. 13). so S. Augustine (lib. de Consens. Evang. 2, c. 12).

2. Because, as Euthymius, S. Thomas, and Lyra show, Herod, towards the close of his life, being accused by the Arabians before Augustus Cæsar, that emperor three times refused even to speak to his ambassadors, although at length with wonderful art he appeased Cæsar, as Josephus relates, Ant. lib. 17, c. 7, &c. And then he sought and obtained permission from Augustus, as it would seem, to slay the children; in which Augustus deserves no small blame for giving this permission. So Ruperti, lib. 2 de Vict., c. 2.

3. He delayed the massacre in order to find out a sure way of killing all the infants, that none might be hidden by their mothers and so escape. Hence Abulensis thinks that Herod, in the first place, ordered the little boys to be enrolled with the name and age of each; and, when he had gathered them together, slew them all; but that he gathered them, not in one place, but in the various villages or districts, to each of which he sent executioners to seek out, gather together, and slay. Such a thing might be easily done amongst the Jews, because they kept very exact records of their genealogies, that it might be known that Messiah was born, according to Jacob’s prophecy of the tribe of Judah. Hence, when any child was circumcised, his name and parents, and the date of his birth, were set down, just as parish priests register the children who are baptized.

S. Antoninus thinks that Herod instituted a feast for boys, and ordered all the mothers to bring all their children who were about two years of age, as though they were to receive a reward.

Moreover Herod obtained leave from Augustus to put his own three sons, Alexander, Aristobulus, and Antipater to death. Whence he slew the first two named some time previously, and Antipater about five days before his own death, which happened, says Josephus, at the Passover, in the thirty-seventh year of his reign. (Ant. lib. 17, cc. 10 & II.) And it was then he slew the young children. This we learn from Macrobius. who, amongst other anecdotes of Augustus, relates this (Saturnal. lib. 2, c. 10): “When he heard that the king of the Jews had ordered the boys in Syria under two years old to be slain, and that his own son had been killed, he said, ‘It were better to be Herod’s pig than his son, because the Jews do not eat pork.’

From what has been said, it may be gathered that the infants were slain about the time of the Passover, or about fifteen months from the birth of Christ. The Church, however, celebrates their festival at Christmas, because they were killed for Christ’s sake, that she may thus, as it were, magnify and decorate the Festival of the Nativity. Barradi, however, and Emmanuel Sa., think that they were slain on the anniversary of the very day on which the Church keeps their festival. They were slain when Christ was in the second year of His age, in spring and in the month of March, when their ancestress, Rachel, had died (Gen_35:16). It was about the same time that he ordered his own son Antipater to be put to death. He also cut off the Sanhedrim, as the great Council of the Jews is called, together with many of the Pharisees, because they would not acknowledge him to be king. The rest were compelled to take an oath of allegiance. In doing these things, he was aided by his father-in-law, Simon the son of Boethus, whom he had made high priest. And all was with the connivance of Quintilius Varro, the governor of Syria, a friend of Herod’s. Whence he was not afraid to shut up all the chief of the Jews in prison, and would have put them to death if he had lived. For just before his own death, he ordered his sister Salome, and her husband, Alexas, to kill them, in order, as he said, “that the Jews may wail at my death, whether they like it or not, since they must weep for their own friends.” But Salome, who was of a milder disposition, set them all at liberty as soon as Herod was dead. So Josephus, &c.

Some think from the Apocalypse (Rev 14:1) that the infants who were slain by Herod were 144,000, But S. John is speaking of the Virgins who shall resist the lust and persecution of Antichrist, even unto death and martyrdom. Neither is it credible that in so small a district as that of Bethlehem there were 144,000 boys under two years old. What the Abyssinians have in their Canon of the Mass, that the number was 14,000 is rather more probable; of this opinion are the Jesuit Salmeron, Franc. Lucas, and Gerebrard (lib. 2, Chronolog. A.C. III.). This last adds, that the Greeks give the same number in their Kalendar. And yet it is hard to suppose that there could be 14,000 infants in so small a place, more than are to be found in Rome, or Naples, or Milan, or other large cities.

Note, in the first place, that the infants who were slain by Herod, through hatred of Christ, were true martyrs, and as such are honoured by the Church, and their Festival kept. And the same may be said of all infants who are killed out of hatred to the Faith, through the unmerited and bountiful disposition of God.

Whence it follows that martyrdom justifies ex opere operato, for by it these little ones who had not yet been circumcised were cleansed from original sin and justified; and the same thing was wrought which baptism worketh. So the Fathers and Doctors, passim, and indeed the whole Church. (See S. Bernard, Serm. de Innocent.) Hence Doctors teach that there are three classes of martyrs. To the first belong those who, in deed as well as will, are martyrs. Such are adults who voluntarily accept death from a tyrant for the sake of Christ. The second class are those who are martyrs only in deed; such as infants who are slain for Christ. The third are those who are martyrs only in will—who desire martyrdom as S. Francis desired it. With this object in view he sent to the sultan of Egypt; but he, seeing him to be a holy man, would not kill him. Thus he missed the laurel crown of actual martyrdom.

Note, secondly, the wonderful providence of God, whereby, first, He punished the Bethlehemites by the slaughter of their children, because they themselves would not receive the Blessed Virgin, and her Son Jesus with hospitality, but compelled her to go into a stable, and there bring forth. Secondly, because by means of this massacre, He decorated the boys themselves, who were slain, with the laurel of martyrdom. Thirdly, because He brought about that Christ should escape by flight into Egypt, and should through this slaughter become better known to the world. By this “it was prophetically declared that the Church of God should increase by the cruel fury of her persecutors; since by the punishments and deaths of the blessed martyrs, whilst Christians were supposed to be diminished in numbers, they were augmented by example.” (S. Leo, Serm. de Epiph.) “And the blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians,” as Tertullian observes in the end of his Apology.

Moreover, Christ as He was man, although an infant, had the use of reason. And when the WORD, which was united to Him, revealed to Him this slaughter of the little children for His sake, He grieved, because of the deep sympathy of His tenderness, and suffered with them and their parents. But in spirit He exulted over their glory and martyrdom. And thus He offered them to God the Father, as the first-fruits of His Advent, and the earliest oblations of His grace.

Note, thirdly, God’s just vengeance upon Herod for his murder of the infants, and as far as in him lay of Christ Himself. For, five days after the masacre, he himself breathed out his cruel soul; being smitten with fever, a cough, dysentery, dropsy, gout, consumption, the lousy disease, putrefaction, asthma, and such an intolerable stench, that he endeavoured to lay violent hands upon himself. His sons were not allowed to reign as kings, but were only tetrarchs, and perished miserably. Also his entire posterity, most numerous as it was, became, with few exceptions, entirely extinct within a hundred years, as Josephus relates (Ant. lib 17, c. 8, &c.), who adds that all men were of opinion that it was the effect of the just vengeance of God.

Allegorically: the infants slain by Herod at the Passover, as it were Paschal lambs, were a type of Christ, who, thirty-two years afterwards, was mocked by Herod, a descendant of this Herod the infanticide, and crucified by Pilate at the season of the Passover, and who offered Himself to God the Father, as it were a Lamb and a Paschal Victim, for the salvation of the world. Hear S. Augustine (Serm. 8 de Sanctis): “When Christ was born, grief began, not in heaven, but on earth. To mothers is proclaimed lamentation, to angels exultation, to infants translation. He is God who is born. To Him innocents are due as victims, for He came to condemn the wickedness of the world. Angels ought to be immolated, because the Lamb, who taketh away the sins of the world is about to be crucified. But the mother-sheep lament, because they lose their lambs bleating without speech: a glorious martyrdom, though a cruel spectacle.”

And Prudentius, in his hymn. says:—

“You, tender flock of lambs, we sing,
First victims slain for Christ your King:
Before the Altar’s heavenly ray,
With martyr palms and crowns ye play.”

Symbolically: the children who were slain by Herod in the springtime were like vernal flowers put forth in the country of Bethlehem by the warmth of the rays of the Sun of righteousness, and offered to Jesus of Nazareth as the Flourishing One. Whence Prudentius in his Epiphany hymn, and the Church in her office, sings:—

“All hail ye infant martyr flowers,
Cut off in life’s first dawning hours;
As rosebuds snapt in tempest strife,
When Herod sought your Saviour’s life.”

And S. Augustine (Serm. 2 de Innocent.): “How happily born were they whom eternal life met on the threshold of existence.” And (Serm. 3): “Rightly are these Innocents called the flowers of the Martyrs, whom, in the mid-winter of unbelief, a hoar frost as it were of persecution caused to bloom like the primal buds of the Church.”

And S. Chrysostom (Serm. 4) says: “Infancy, unconscious of suffering, bore away the palms and crowns of martyrdom. True martyrs of grace! they confess without voice; knowing it not they fight; ignorant of it, they conquer; unconscious, they die, they bear away the palms, they seize the crowns.”

We see that God made these little ones first to triumph, then to live. He adorns them with crowns before He bestows upon them perfect members.

Tropologically: Christ loves infants, that is, the little ones and the lowly; and raises such to the perfection of grace, that is, to martyrdom. Hence He Himself says, “Whosoever shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Hear S. Leo (Serm. 7, in Epiphan.): “Wherefore my beloved brethren, the whole discipline of Christian wisdom consisteth, not in a copious flow of words, nor in cunning disputation, nor in the desire of praise and glory, but in true and voluntary humility, which the Lord Jesus Christ, from His mother’s womb even unto the death of the Cross, both chose and taught instead of every kind of strength.” And shortly afterwards: “He loveth infancy, which at the first He assumed, both in mind and body. Christ loveth infancy, the mistress of humility, the rule of innocence, the pattern of meekness. Christ loves infancy, which guides the manners of elders; unto which He directs the years of old men, and inclines to His own example those whom He would lift on high to the eternal kingdom.” And previously: “The whole victory of the Saviour, which overcame both the devil and the world, was conceived and completed by humility.”

Mat 2:17  Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremias the prophet, saying:
Mat 2:18  A voice in Rama was heard, lamentation and great mourning; Rachel bewailing her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.

Verses 17, 18.—Then was fulfilled, &c. They are not, because indeed, as far as the body was concerned they perished, in that they were slain by Herod; but as to their souls, they were carried into eternity, says S. Hilary.

I have explained this passage in my Commentary on Jer 31:15, which see.

S. Augustine graphically portrays this weeping of the mothers (Serm. I de Innocent.), and thus concludes: “The lamentation of the mothers was mingled with the oblation of the little ones, as they passed into heaven.”

Tropologically: Rachel, the sheep, as the word signifies in Hebrew, bewails the death of her lambs; but the angels rejoice, yea, even the little ones, because their souls passed to the society of the angels.

Whence S. Augustine (Serm. 3 de Innocent.): “Behold, the profane enemy could never have benefited the little ones by kindness as much as he did by hatred. And wherefore? Because they received the dignity of eternal life before they received the use of time present.” Therefore, in being born, they died unto the world; and by dying, they began to live in heaven. To these infants are most appropriate those words of S. Paul: “We are made a spectacle (Gr. θεατρὸν, a theatre) to the world, and to angels, and to men.” (1 Cor 4:9.) That is to say, in the circus, in the amphitheatre, we are seen of all. We are βιοθάνατοι,—i.e. we are exposed to gladiators and to wild beasts.

Wherefore consider: by this infanticide God would teach us, as by a scenic representation, that the whole of a Christian’s life, from childhood unto death, is perpetual persecution, the cross and death; and that the fortitude and courage of a Christian consist rather in enduring hardness than in doing hard things; in constant patience than in fighting: for it is more difficult to suffer than to act and fight. “To act bravely,” saith one, “is the part of a Roman; to suffer bravely is the part of a Christian.” When Christ suffered for us, He said, “I have given my body to the strikers, and my cheeks to them that plucked them. I have not turned away my face from them that rebuked me, and spit upon me.” (Isaiah 1:6).

These little ones in their turn, for Christ’s sake, gave their limbs to be mangled by the executioners. A Christian may do the same, and for God’s sake give his body for a prey, give it unto death, unto labours, unto torments of every kind. Thus did S. Eusebius, Bishop of Vercelli, who writes to his flock, “I have given my body to the Arians for a prey.” By them he was tormented, and became a glorious martyr of Christ, and a defender of His Godhead, even unto death. Truly saith S. Fulgentius (de Epiph.), “To this end God permitted Herod to slay the infants, that He might cause them to triumph over Herod.” Lastly, S. Cyprian (lib. 4, Epist. 6 ad Thibarit.) says, “An age not suitable for battle was made fit for a crown. The Son of God suffered that He might make us sons of God; and the Son of Man wills not to suffer, that He may continue to be the Son of God.”


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