The Massacre of the Holy Innocents according to Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich

The following text is excerpted from The Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary by Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, available here: CatholicPlanet eLibrary.
Towards the middle of Jesus’ second year the Blessed Virgin was told of Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents by an angel appearing to her in Heliopolis. She and Joseph were greatly distressed, and the Child Jesus wept that whole day. I saw what follows.

When the three kings did not return to Jerusalem, Herod’s anxiety decreased to some extent; he was at that time much occupied with family affairs. His anxiety revived again, however, when various reports reached him about Simeon’s and Anna’s prophecies in the Temple at the Presentation of the Infant Jesus. At this moment the Holy Family had been some time in Nazareth.

Under various pretexts he dispatched soldiers to different places round Jerusalem, such as Gilgal, Bethlehem, and Hebron, and ordered a census of the children to be made. The soldiers remained, I think, about nine months in these places. Herod was in the meantime in Rome,187 and it was not until soon after his return that the children were massacred. John the Baptist was two years old when it happened, and had again been for some time at home with his parents in secret. Before Herod issued the order that all mothers were to bring before the authorities their male children up to two years old, Elisabeth had been warned by the appearance of an angel and had once more fled into the wilderness with her little son. Jesus was nearly eighteen months old and could already run about.188 The children were massacred in seven different places. The mothers had been promised rewards for their fruitfulness. They came from their homes in the surrounding country to the government offices in the various towns, bringing with them their little boys in holiday dress. The husbands were turned back, and the mothers were separated from their children. These were stabbed by the soldiers behind the walls of lonely courtyards; their bodies were heaped together and then buried in trenches.

[Catherine Emmerich communicated her vision of the Massacre of the Innocents on March 8th, 1821, i.e. a year after her account of the Flight into Egypt, so that it may be presumed that the massacre took place a year later than the Flight.]

This afternoon I saw the mothers with their little sons up to two years of age come to Jerusalem from Hebron, Bethlehem, and a third place. Herod had sent soldiers there, and had later communicated his orders through the authorities of these towns. The women came to the city in separate groups. Some had two children with them and rode on donkeys. They came to the city in joyful expectation, for they thought they were to receive a reward for their fruitfulness. They were all taken into a large building, and the men accompanying them were sent home. This building was somewhat isolated; it was not far from the house where later Pilate lived. It was so enclosed that it was difficult to see from outside what was happening within it. It must once have been a place of execution, for I saw in its courtyard stone pillars and blocks with chains fastened to them, as well as trees which were tied together and then allowed to spring apart so as to tear in pieces the men fastened to them. It was a dark, strong building, and its courtyard was quite as big as the graveyard on one side of Dülmen parish church. A gate led through two walls into this courtyard, which was enclosed by buildings on three sides. To the right and left these were one storey high; the centre one had two storeys and looked like an ancient deserted synagogue. There were gates opening into the courtyard from all three buildings.

The mothers were led through the courtyard into the two side-buildings and there imprisoned. At first I had the impression of their being in a kind of hospice or inn. They became alarmed when they saw themselves deprived of liberty and began to weep and moan, continuing their laments throughout the whole night.

[On the next day, March 9th, she said:] This afternoon I saw a terrible picture. I saw the Massacre of the Innocents taking place in that house of execution. The big building at the back of the court was two storeys high: the lower storey consisted of a great deserted hall like a prison or a guard-room; above it was a large room with windows looking down into the courtyard. I saw a number of officials assembled there as if in a court of justice; before them was a table on which lay scrolls. I think Herod was there, too, for I saw a man in a red cloak lined with white fur with little black tails on it. He was wearing a crown. I saw him, surrounded by others, looking out of the window of the room.

The mothers were summoned one by one with their children from the side-buildings into the great hall below the building at the back of the courtyard. As they came in, their children were removed from them by soldiers and taken through the gate into the courtyard, where some twenty soldiers were at the murderous work of thrusting swords and spears into their throats and hearts. Some were children still at the breast, wrapped in swaddling-bands; others were tiny boys wearing long embroidered dresses. They did not trouble to take off their clothes, they ran their swords through their throats and hearts, and then seized their bodies by an arm or leg and flung them on to a heap. It was a ghastly sight. The mothers were thrust back one by one by the soldiers into the great hall. When they saw what was done to their children, they raised a terrible outcry, clinging to each other and tearing their hair. They were so closely packed at the end that they could hardly move. I think the massacre went on until towards evening.

The children’s bodies were afterwards buried in a pit in the same courtyard. Their number was shown to me, but I have no clear recollection of it. I think it was 700, and another number with 7 or 17 in it. The number was explained to me by an expression in which I remember a sound like ‘Ducen’: I think I had to reckon two c’s together several times.

I was absolutely horrified by what I had seen, and did not know where it had happened: I thought it was here. It was only when I woke up that I was able gradually to recollect myself.
The above account of the Massacre of the Holy Innocents is taken from the visions of Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich. The number of Holy Innocents is estimated by her at about 700, but she was uncertain on that point.

Some commentators have claimed that the number killed was very small, as Bethlehem was a small town which could not have had many infants or toddlers. But the Scripture text refutes that claim:

{2:16} Then Herod, seeing that he had been fooled by the Magi, was very angry. And so he sent to kill all the boys who were in Bethlehem, and in all its borders, from two years of age and under, according to the time that he had learned by questioning the Magi.
{2:17} Then what was spoken through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled, saying:
{2:18} “A voice has been heard in Ramah, great weeping and wailing: Rachel crying for her sons. And she was not willing to be consoled, because they were no more.”

The male children killed were not only from Bethlehem, but also from “all its borders”, meaning every surrounding town or region. The verse that figuratively portrays Rachel as weeping for her children also seems to indicate a wider region than Bethlehem, as the tomb of Rachel and the city of Ramah are not in Bethlehem, but in the surrounding region also.

Other commentators have put the number killed much higher, in the thousands. But this evaluation also seems unlikely. Herod did not kill the young children of Jerusalem, a populous city, nor did he kill all the children of Judea or Palestine. Bethlehem and its surrounding region would likely have hundreds, but not thousands of male children 2 years of age and younger.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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