Reclaiming Christmas: Remembering the Holy Innocents

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Christmas Pack #15
Reclaiming Christmas

Remembering the Holy Innocents

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Remembering the Holy Innocents

A Service for December 28th

By Milo Thornberry


"The Day of the Holy Innocents," a day set aside to remember the slaughter of the children in and around Bethlehem, is often forgotten in the midst of our Christmas and Epiphany celebrations. The service below is based on one congregation's attempt to reclaim this important day. The service was so well received by the congregation of Aldersgate United Methodist Church, Juneau, Alaska, many asked that "Remembering the Holy Innocents" become part of their church's traditional Christmas services.

Use this resource to plan a service or special event in your church on or around December 28th. Take this opportunity to both remember the slaughter of the holy innocents and be reminded of the vulnerability of children today. As you read through this piece and plan a service of your own, consider where children are at risk in your community. Plan to invite a representative from a program helping children in your area to take part in your event. Also included are some ideas for further study and action.

The Dark Side of the Christmas Story

There are two stories of the birth of Jesus in the gospels. The story told in the gospel of Luke is one of a pastoral scene with a stable and shepherds quietly watching their flocks on the hillsides outside Bethlehem. The story, as it is told in the gospel of Matthew is a little different (Matthew 2:1-18). Although we don't usually read this story until after Christmas Day, we know the plot well. It is the story of the magi following a star to find the Christ Child in Bethlehem. It is also the story of Herod. The tyrant Herod has learned from the magi that a baby has been born who will be "King of the Jews." Due to his limited power under the Romans, Herod is jealous of the would-be King. He will stop at nothing to find the baby Jesus and kill him.

You know the rest of the story. After receiving a message in a dream, Joseph gets up in the middle of the night, takes Mary and the baby Jesus, somehow sneaks through Herod's palace guards and the Roman soldiers on the outskirts of Jerusalem and gets away to Egypt. Jesus is saved from Herod's wrath. But many others are not. In an attempt to destroy the newborn King and insure his own grip on power, Herod orders all of the boy babies in the area around Bethlehem to be killed. And so the prophesy was fulfilled: "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children. . . ." This is what is known in church history as "The Slaughter of the Holy Innocents."

From very early in its history, the church set aside a day - December 28th - to remember the massacre of the innocent children of Bethlehem. Since few churches today observe the Day of the Holy Innocents, this scripture is seldom read during the Christmas season, and rarely read at all. It is a shame that we have lost this day from our traditional Christmas observances, because this part of the Christmas story goes beyond the quiet beauty of Christmas Eve to the real world into which the baby Jesus was born. And it takes us from the romantic beauty of our Christmas celebrations to the real world in which we live. For today, it is enough to be warned that when we ignore the harsh realities around the birth of Jesus, we are tempted to rest in the comfort of Christmas fantasies and divert our eyes from the harsh realities of our world.

A Service of Remembering

GATHERING Children's Group of Chimers

"Jesus Loves Me"

"Away in a Manger"

[We have a lot of children at Aldersgate, and we wanted them to participate in the service. They did. After their contribution, most of the children sat in the front of the sanctuary and listened attentively through the forty-five minute service. They seemed to sense the seriousness and purpose of the celebration.]


Tonight we gather in the Christmas season
to remember things of old.
And in thinking of days long past
to think about the here and now.
We come to celebrate children
and to remember their vulnerability.


O God of all youth, we pray to you:
We are young people, and we want to celebrate life!
We cry out against all that kills life:
hunger, poverty, unemployment, sickness,
repression, individualism, injustice.
We want to announce fullness of life:
work, education, health, housing,
bread for all.
We want communion, a world renewed,
We hope against hope.

With the Lord of history we want to make all things new. *

[You can encourage the youth in your congregation to share this call to worship.]


INTRODUCTION "The Dark Side of the Christmas Story"

[Introduce the service with a five-minute presentation of the material in the above introduction.]

SPECIAL MUSIC "Lully, Thou Little Tiny Child"

[This is a fairly common Christmas carol from the sixteenth century lamenting the death of the innocents.]

PRESENTATION "Children at Risk"

[A staffperson from a local center for abused women and children gave a fifteen-minute presentation on the vulnerability of children in the contemporary world. She used statistics and stories to show how children in Juneau are at risk from disease, poverty, racism and sexual abuse.]


[A member of the congregation responded to the "Children at Risk" presentation by reflecting on the role our congregation might play in making Juneau a safer place for children.]


Leader: Let us come before God with our prayers, trusting in a God of love and hope, of justice and forgiveness.

For all babies, especially for babies born too soon or too small, that they will receive the special care they need,

People: O God, hear our prayer.

Leader: For all children, especially for the children who are left behind to care for themselves or who don't receive good quality care, that they will receive the nurturing they need to develop their potential,

People: O God, hear our prayer.

Leader: For all youths, especially for the youths who don't feel loved or hopeful, that they will find adults who will share your love for them, who will open doors of possibility, value and support,

People: O God, hear our prayer.

Leader: For all parents, especially for the parents who struggle to provide for and nurture their children in the midst of poverty, violence and racism, that they will find support in you and through their communities,

People: O God, hear our prayer.

Leader: For our nation, that we will reorder our priorities to manifest a just and more caring reflection of your vision for creation,

People: O God, hear our prayer.

Leader: For ourselves, that we might find renewed inspiration and guidance in our efforts with and on behalf of children and families,

People: O God, hear our prayer. Amen.


[The congregation of Aldersgate United Methodist Church used a "Hymn of Promise" from The United Methodist Hymnal, #707. Use this hymn or choose one from your tradition that seems appropriate.]


Suggestions for Additional Activities:

A Prayer for Children . . .

We pray for children
Who put chocolate fingers everywhere,
Who like to be tickled,
Who stomp in puddles and ruin their new pants,
Who sneak Popsicles before supper,
Who erase holes in math workbooks,
Who never can find their shoes.
And we pray for those
Who stare at photographers from behind barbed wire,
Who can't bounce down the street
In a new pair of sneakers,
Who never "counted potatoes,"
Who are born in places we wouldn't be caught dead,
Who never go to the circus,
Who live in an X-rated world.
We pray for children
Who bring us sticky kisses and fistfuls of dandelions,
Who sleep with the dog and bury goldfish,
Who hug us in a hurry and forget their lunch money,
Who cover themselves with Band-Aids and sing off-key,
Who squeeze toothpaste all over the sink,
Who slurp their soup.
And we pray for those
Who never get dessert,
Who have no safe blanket to drag behind them,
Who watch their parents watch them die,
Who can't find any bread to steal,
Who don't have rooms to clean up,
Whose pictures aren't on anybody's dresser,
Whose monsters are real.
We pray for children
Who spend all their allowance before Tuesday,
Who throw tantrums in the grocery store and
Pick at their food,
Who like ghost stories,
Who shove dirty clothes under the bed
And never rinse out the tub,
Who get visits from the tooth fairy,
Who don't like to be kissed in front of the carpool,
Who squirm in church and scream in the phone,
Whose tears we sometimes laugh at,
And whose smiles can make us cry.
And we pray for those
Whose nightmares come in the daytime,
Who will eat anything,
Who have never seen a dentist,
Who aren't spoiled by anybody,
Who go to bed hungry and cry themselves to sleep,
Who live and move, but have no being.
We pray for children who want to be carried
And for those who must.
For those we never give up on
And for those who don't have a second chance,
For those we smother
And those who will grab the hand of anybody
Kind enough to offer it.

Ina J. Hughs

Used with permission. Reprinted from A Sense of Human, by Ina J. Hughs. For a copy of the book, send $11.95 (ppd.) to The Knoxville News-Sentinel, Box 59038, Knoxville, TN 37950-9038.

* Reprinted with permission from Bread of Tomorrow, edited by Janet Morley (Orbis Books, 1992.) This prayer was first offered by a group of Brazilian young people, World Council of Churches, 1989.


Milo Thornberry, former director of Alternatives, has more recently served as the pastor churches in Alaska and Oregon.

Get to know Milo at Post #181.

Make copies of this resource under the Creative Commons attribution, not-for-profit license.

Page updated 28 Dec. 2016

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