Today, December 26, is the feast of St. Stephen, patron saint of deacons and the first martyr of the church. Or perhaps not the first, but the first mortal who knowingly died for his faith in Jesus Christ.
Coming two days later, on December 28, there is also the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which marks the slaughter of all the male children in and around Bethlehem by Herod (Matthew 2:16):
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.
Much of the text in Matthew 2 about the Magi, and the journey of the Holy Family into Egypt, is suspect if one is looking for weak points in the story of how God became incarnate in Jesus.
Skeptics usually cite Josephus’ history of the times, and find no specifics of such a massacre. The problem for believers is that to merely state that “since the tale is it is in the Gospels, it must be true” is not a defense, merely a statement of belief.
The essence of Matthew 2 is to show that Jesus came in fulfillment of prophecies made in the Hebrew Scriptures. You may believe this true, or not (I believe it to be true), but to make a big issue of chapter and verse in the Gospels is to confuse historical truth with the greater Truth of God.
Both types of truth are important, of course. Our faith should never be required to trump reason or objective data. Yet the marking of the killing of innocents on account of Jesus is a very, very good thing. It is a reminder that even unto this day people are murdered, sometimes for their faith in Jesus. There are all too many places in the world today where innocent lives are cut short because of the need of an evil ruler to suppress a competing idea. In the time of Herod, the idea was the big one — that God is among us, Immanuel, in the person of the infant Jesus.
Now, to my knowledge, there is nothing to disprove that the holy innocents did not perish as written in Matthew. That does not make the story true, but it does not deny it’s Truth. Even in modern times, think of our surprise when we discovered mass graves that Saddam Hussein had kept hidden up until we got rid of this modern Herod. It should not be surprising that events of 2,000 years ago might not have been well recorded.