On this day in the church calendar in certain parts of the Christian Church around the world, Holy Innocents Day is celebrated. It is a time for the faithful to remember back to that fateful day when when King Herod ordered the slaughter of all the boys in Bethlehem under age 2 (Matthew 2). The Catholic Church considers the slaughtered baby boys to be martyrs.
No doubt about it, when the prince of peace was born in Bethlehem, he entered enemy territory. King Herod would have no so-called king usurp his power, no matter his age or his innocence. To be certain, he had all the little babies in Bethlehem killed who were 2 and under.
Holy Innocents Day takes me back to the time when Jennifer and I took our two kids (Ian and Maddie) to Egypt, where we spent a week exploring. One day we visited St. Sergius Church in Cairo (pictured below).
Most know the story of the angel waking Joseph in the middle of the night. The angel gave him a clear, nonnegotiable message: “Get up now. Immediately. Get Mary and Jesus and leave. Don’t wait. Go south now. Get your wife and baby up. Go! Go!”
Joseph obeyed. We can only imagine.
You know that dramatic story from Matthew chapter 2, but you may not know one of my favorite Christmas stories. It is a short story by Henry Van Dyke that depicts these events recorded in Matthew 2 in an endearing story called “The Otherwise Man.”
Van Dycke imagines that there was a 4th wise man who somehow got separated from the traditional 3 wise men. (Of course, we have really have no idea how many magi there were.)
The 4th wise man in Van Dyke’s story is an astrologer named Artaban. He is so certain that child being born in Bethlehem is worth finding, he continues on alone, despite being separated from the other magi with whom he intended to travel. Artaban carries with him priceless gems to give to the king, when he finds him. And find him he will! In fact, Artaban decides he will spend the rest of his life looking for this king, if that is indeed what it takes.
In the Van Dyke story, Artaban arrives in Bethlehem just days after the other wise men had left and immediately after Joseph, Mary & Jesus had fled for Egypt. He finds a sweet young family in Bethlehem who invite him to spend the night in their home. But as soon as the family turns in for the night, there are screams in the streets of Bethlehem. Suddenly, a cry from the neighbor’s home pierces the night air, “The soldiers. They are killing our babies.”
Fear and chaos descend on the home where Artaban is staying. Instantly, a clamor of swords and a knock comes to the door of the home. The terrified young mother and her baby boy hide.
Artaban himself answers the door, finding himself face to face with the captain of the Roman guard carrying out Herod’s orders. “Out of the way,” the wild-eyed captain yells at Artaban, “Out of the way. Every house will be searched. Is there a baby boy here? Move aside or you’ll be killed.”
Artaban doesn’t move. Standing firm, he reaches inside his garment and pulls out a glistening ruby, one of the gems he intended to give to the special king when he found him. “There is no baby boy in this home,” he tells the captain in a certain but soft voice. The captain has his sword raised in his right hand, ready to enter bring death to the home. Without budging from the doorway, Artaban says to the captain, “I am prepared to give this ruby to the man who will leave this home alone.”
The captain looks at the glistening ruby. The soldiers with him stop in their tracks. The captain quickly grabs the ruby from Artaban’s outstretched palm, lets out a sinister laugh and yells to his soldiers, “Move on. There is no baby here.”
Artaban lied to save baby boy in this home, giving up one of the treasures he intended to give to the true king he was certain he would one day find. And so goes Van Dycke’s intriguing story. The story has Artaban moving through the years continually in search for the one he knows to be the king of all kings.
I won’t give the ending away — that wouldn’t be any fun — other than to say the ending of the 45-page short story is as intriguing and captivating as the scene where Artaban lies to save the life of a baby boy.
Today on this December 28, I am thinking back to the trip to St. Sergius Coptic Church, where I once stood quietly one a hot summer day with my wife Jennifer and my two children in central Cairo, wondering if indeed that place might have been the place where the holy family once lived for a short time.
The story of the birth of Jesus is full of beauty, intrigue, confusion, certainty, evil, grief and enormous mystery. And today — “Holy Innocents Day” — I quiet my heart and think about God loving the world so much that no one and nothing could stop his plan.