From Saint Andrew Daily Missal:
The Feast of the Holy Innocents dates back to about the fifth century. The massacre of these infants manifests the royal character of Jesus. It is because Herod believed the words of the Magi and those of the High Priests whom he consulted that he sees a rival in the Infant of Bethlehem and jealously pursues Him “that is born King of the Jews.” But as the Church sings, in the Hymn for Vespers of the Epiphany, “O cruel Herod, why thus fear, Thy King and God who comes below? No earthly crown comes He to take, who heavenly kingdoms doth bestow.”
It is this God-King that the Innocents by dying confess (Collect). Their passion is the exaltation of Christ. And the praise that they render to God is a subject of confusion in the enemies of Jesus (Introit), for, far from attaining their object, they only served to fulfil the saying of the Prophet “out of Egypt have I called my son.” (Gospel), and that at Bethlehem would be heard the lamentations of the mothers mourning for their children. To picture their desolation in more vivid colours, Jeremias recalls Rachel whose lamentations are heard in Rama, bewailing her children because they are not. Like a compassionate mother, the Church robes her priests today in vestments of mourning, and suppresses the Gloria and Alleluia…
Let us show forth in holiness of life, the divinity of Christ, that was confessed by the death of these innocent souls.
Introit: Psalm VIII. 3 Ex ore infántium Deus, et lacténtium perfecísti laudem propter inimícos tuos. * Dómine Dóminus noster: quam admirábile est nomen tuum in univérsa terra!
Out of the mouth of infants and of sucklings, O God, Thou hast perfected praise because of Thine enemies. * O Lord our God: how admirable is Thy name in the whole earth!
Deus, cujus hodiérna die præcónium Innocentes Mártyres non loquéndo, sed moriéndo conféssi sunt: ómnia in nobis vitiórum mala mortífica; ut fidem tuam, quam lingua nostra lóquitur, étiam móribus vita fateátur.
O God, Whose praise the martyred innocents did this day proclaim, not by speaking, but by dying, do to death in us all the malice of sinfulness, that our lives may also proclaim Thy faith, which our tongues profess.
Gospel: Matthew ii. 13-18
At that time 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 tell thee: for it will come to pass that Herod will seek the child to destroy Him. Who arose, and took the child and His mother by night, and retired into Egypt; and He was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which the Lord spoke by the prophet, saying: Out of Egypt have I called My Son. Then Herod, perceiving that he was deluded by the wise men, was exceeding angry; and sending, killed all the men children 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. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremias the prophet, saying: A voice in Rama was heard, lamentation and great mourning; Rachel bewailing her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.
(St Matt. 2:13-18)
Hymn from the Breviary
This marvellous hymn, which is sung at Lauds and Vespers of the Holy Innocents, was written by Prudentius in the early 5th century.
Salvéte, flores Mártyrum,
Quos lucis ipso in límine
Christi insecútor sústulit,
Ceu turbo nascéntes rosas.
Vos prima Christi víctima,
Grex immolatórum tener,
Aram sub ipsam símplices
Palma et corónis lúditis.
Jesu, tibi sit glória,
Qui natus es de Vírgine,
Cum Patre et almo Spíritu,
In sempitérna saecula. Amen.
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.
You, tender flock of Christ, we sing,
First victims slain for Christ your King:
Beneath the Altar’s heavenly ray
With Martyr-palms and crowns ye play.
All honour, laud, and glory be,
O Jesu, Virgin-Born, to thee;
Whom with the Father we adore,
And Holy Ghost, for evermore. Amen.
From the Old Calendar, The Holy Innocents, Martyrs:
“During this octave of Christmas the Church celebrates the memory of the small children of the neighbourhood of Bethlehem put to death by Herod. Sacrificed by a wicked monarch, these innocent lives bear witness to Christ who was persecuted from the time of His birth by a world which would not receive Him. It is Christ Himself who is at stake in this mass-murder of the children; already the choice, for or against Him, is put clearly before men. But the persecutors are powerless, for Christ came to perform a work of salvation that nothing can prevent; when He fell into the hands of His enemies at the time chosen by God it was to redeem the world by His own Blood.
Our Christmas joy is tempered today by a feeling of sadness. But the Church looks principally to the glory of the children, of these innocent victims, whom she shows us in Heaven following the Lamb wherever He goes.”
And we have this poignant explanation of the feast from St Augustine of Hippo:
“Today, dearest brethren, we celebrate the birthday of those children who were slaughtered, as the Gospel tells us, by that exceedingly cruel king, Herod. Let the earth, therefore, rejoice and the Church exult — she, the fruitful mother of so many heavenly champions and of such glorious virtues. Never, in fact, would that impious tyrant have been able to benefit these children by the sweetest kindness as much as he has done by his hatred. For as today’s feast reveals, in the measure with which malice in all its fury was poured out upon the holy children, did heaven’s blessing stream down upon them.
‘Blessed are you, Bethlehem in the land of Judah! You suffered the inhumanity of King Herod in the murder of your babes and thereby have become worthy to offer to the Lord a pure host of infants. In full right do we celebrate the heavenly birthday of these children whom the world caused to be born unto an eternally blessed life rather than that from their mothers’ womb, for they attained the grace of everlasting life before the enjoyment of the present. The precious death of any martyr deserves high praise because of his heroic confession; the death of these children is precious in the sight of God because of the beatitude they gained so quickly. For already at the beginning of their lives they pass on. The end of the present life is for them the beginning of glory. These then, whom Herod’s cruelty tore as sucklings from their mothers’ bosom, are justly hailed as “infant martyr flowers’; they were the Church’s first blossoms, matured by the frost of persecution during the cold winter of unbelief.”
Finally, here is the Coventry Carol commemorating this feast day of the Holy Innocents. Despite its lovely but mournful melody and lyrics, it perhaps lacks the hope of glory in martyrdom of the ‘Salvéte, flores Mártyrum’ hymn.
Lullay thou little tiny child,
Bye, bye lully lullay.
O sisters, too how may we do,
For to preserve this day;
This poor youngling for whom we sing,
Bye bye lully lullay.
Herod the king, in his raging
Charged he hath this day;
His men of might in his own sight
All young children to slay.
Then woe is me, poor child for thee
And ever mourn and say;
For thy parting, no say nor sing
Bye bye lully lullay.