Although St Stephen is generally recognised as the first martyr, he was preceded by a host of innocent babes slaughtered by the infamous Herod whose fearful uncertainty drove him in panic to commit the most heinous of crimes.
It is not generally known that the barbarous Herod, who reigned over the Jews at the time when Christ was born, was not by descent a Jew himself, but a member of a tribe that had been absorbed into Judaism.
Hence, he zealously relished his role as king of the Jews under the Roman Empire. The news of the coming of a Messiah, so alarmed Herod that he hastily assembled about him his close associates, including priest and scribes from whom it was ascertained that the newborn king was coming into the world in the obscure village of Bethlehem.
Still sceptical, he consulted the wise men of the East and asked them to seek out this Christ child. However, these Magi, from various countries, not only venerated the Messiah and bestowed gifts upon them, but returned to their homelands rather than betray Him Who was the King of Kings.
Up to this point Herod had been guilty of atrocities of such vile nature that it came as no surprise that, in order to protect his position, he ordered the massacre of every Jewish male infant under the age of two not only in Bethlehem but for miles around. It is estimated that 14,000 infants were put to the sword.
These holy innocents were the first victims of a persecution that proved itself relentless for centuries.
Pilgrims to the Holy Land discover that entombed deep in the grotto of the Church of the Nativity are many of these Innocents, appropriately enough, beneath the now vanished stable where Christ was born.
At this sacred spot the Patriarch of Jerusalem conducts special commemorative services each year on the 29th of December, a day in which Christians of all denominations can- not fail to pause in respect, in whatever part of the world they might be.
from Orthodox Saints, Vol 4
by Fr George Poulos, Holy Cross Orthodox Press