We had it in mind to write a piece on the feast of the Holy Innocents, but then we checked New Liturgical Movement and found that Peter Kwasniewski had written a very fine essay on the feast. He notes,
Thoughts like this often occur to me on the strangely melancholy post-Christmas feast of the Holy Innocents. I say melancholy because, right after Christmas, we have a feast of unspeakable slaughter, bloodthirsty egotism, the ugly shadow of corrupt politics looming over the cradle of Bethlehem, the chill breath of the world against the cheek of humility. I cannot be the only one who winces when the Gospel passage is read out, and thinks of all the ways in which our world has still not let itself be redeemed, is still waging war against the Christ-child, is still scheming to suppress the King of kings.
But then I remind myself why it is a feast and not a day of penance like January 22nd. The Holy Innocents are true martyrs who stood in for Christ: they anticipate in their flesh the scourging, the nails, and the spear by which our salvation was wrought, and by which theirs was completed. What a triumphant victory, to have won without fighting, to have rushed ahead into the mystery of the Cross, without waiting for leave!
(Emphasis supplied.) Read the whole thing there.
Once upon a time, the feast of the Holy Innocents was a feast with a penitential, mournful character. Guéranger tells us:
In the midst of the joy, which, at this holy time, fills both heaven and earth, the Holy Church of Rome forgets not the lamentations of the Mothers, who beheld their Children cruelly butchered by Herod’s soldiers. She hears the wailing of Rachel, and condoles with her; and, unless it be a Sunday, she suspends on this Feast some of the manifestations of the joy, which inundates her soul during the Octave of her Jesus’ Birth. The Red Vestments of a Martyr’s Day would be too expressive of that stream of infant blood which forbids the Mothers to be comforted, and joyous White would ill suit their poignant grief; she, therefore, vests in Purple, the symbol of mournfulness. [Unless it be a Sunday; in which case, the colour used is Red.] The Gloria in excelsis, the Hymn she loves so passionately during these days, when Angels come down from heaven to sing it – even that must be hushed today: and, in the Holy Sacrifice, she sings no Alleluia. In this, as in everything she does, the Church acts with an exquisite delicacy of feeling. Her Liturgy is a school of refined Christian considerateness.
(Emphasis supplied, but italics in original.) Somewhere along the line, the feast became, well, more festal.
We note also that other aspects of the liturgy have changed significantly. In the books of 1960, the responsories at matins and the little chapters at lauds, vespers, and the little hours were taken from Revelation, primarily chapter 14 regarding the 144,000. Guéranger notes,
The Church shows us, by her choice of this mysterious passage of the Apocalypse, how great a value she sets on Innocence, and what our own esteem of it ought to be. The Holy Innocents follow the Lamb, because they are pure. Personal merits on earth they could not have; but they went rapidly through this world, and its defilements never reached them. Their Purity was not tried, as was St. John’s; but, it is beautified by the blood they shed for the Divine Lamb, and He is pleased with it, and makes them his companions.
(Emphasis supplied.) We wonder if the choice goes beyond that, though. Obviously the office wants us to associate the Holy Innocents with the 144,000 in Revelation 14. The office also alludes to the souls of the martyrs under the altar in Revelation 6. Plainly, the Church takes the occasion of the Holy Innocents’ feast to point to some very obscure passages in Revelation. In the Liturgia Horarum, however, many of the mysterious selections from Revelation have been replaced with selections from Lamentations. Perhaps a little more easily comprehensible, but awfully rough on the mysterious aspects of the feast.