THE gold, frankincense, and myrrh offered by the Wise Men reveal the Christ-child as king and God and sacrifice (Matthew 2.11). What is proclaimed in these gifts begins to be enacted in the verses which follow. Recognising that the Wise Men have “tricked” him in returning to the East by another route, an “infuriated” Herod commands that all the children in Bethlehem aged two and under are to be slaughtered.
As Stanley Hauerwas explains, Herod is quite right to identify the Christ-child as a threat. The conflict between Jesus’s reign and all other kingdoms arises because the Kingdom that he proclaims “is not some inner sanctuary” for purely private piety, but, rather, “an alternative world, an alternative people, an alternative politics”. If Christ is indeed the “King of the Jews” (Matthew 2.1), then Herod’s kingship is called into question (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Matthew).
While we see Christ’s kingship in this story, we also see foreshadowed the part that he plays as sacrificial victim (Hebrews 2.17). As St Peter Chrysologus explains, the Christ-child is providentially protected on this occasion so that he may offer himself on the altar of the cross. “Thus it was that Christ, when he was to become a man, was not to flee the death he escaped as an infant.”
From his infancy, Jesus’s life embraces vulnerability, and rejects the use of violence to impose his will. As the “pioneer” of our salvation (Hebrews 2.10), he is offering himself as the perfect sacrifice which can effect a reconciliation we are unable to achieve. Yet he is also marking a path of courageous and non-violent resistance of evil which will lead his followers to be “tested” by suffering as he was (2.16).
Commenting on our epistle, St John Chrysostom observes that sufferings are not simply “the fate of those who are utterly forsaken”, but “a perfecting and a cause of salvation”. They are the mark of every Christlike life; for “it was by leading him through sufferings that God first honoured his Son.”
The Slaughter of the Innocents is a revelatory event. It unveils Christ both as divine King (inaugurating a reign of peace which challenges this world’s), and as sacrifice (foreshadowing his perfect offering on the cross). Herod’s brutality also reveals the response of unbridled worldly power to the existence of a realm of truth and righteousness which it cannot manipulate or control.
But this passage has a relevance far beyond such extreme contexts. It is too comforting to externalise its message as applying only to evil tyrants. As Hauerwas observes, “all Jerusalem” was frightened with Herod at the news of the birth. Children are troubling to all who wish to be in control of their lives: “They rightly frighten us, pulling us as they do into an unknown future.”
From the earliest times, Christians have borne witness to the value of children’s lives — both before and after birth — in a manner that has brought them into conflict with the surrounding culture. Because our God has taken flesh, every stage of human love is sacred. As Anne Richards writes, the Church’s attitude to children must begin with a recognition that all human life exists not in its own right or power, but in response to God’s calling it into being. That call “is no more significant in the lives of adults than it is in the lives of unborn children, infants, or infirm elderly”. To cut off life prematurely is to “interrupt a unique and personal vocation” (Children in the Bible: A fresh approach).
Our Old Testament reading foreshadows God’s arrival among us in the person of Jesus. The prophet Isaiah tells God’s people that deliverance will not come from “a messenger or an angel”; rather, the Lord will redeem his people “by his own presence”. As Anna Case-Winters explains, Matthew’s narrative emphasises the manner in which Christ recapitulates the history of his people. “Bethlehem is the city of David, Egypt is the land of slavery and the Exodus, and Ramah is the place of mourning for exile” (Belief — A Theological Commentary on the Bible: Matthew).
In the birth of the Christ-child, Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled, as God does not only come among his people but enters into the depths of their oppression, exile, and suffering. Christ comes as their true King, and yet also as the sacrificial victim who will reconcile them to their heavenly Father.