Herod perceiving that he was deluded by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and sending killed all the men children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the borders thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. (Matthew 2:16)
It is not possible to determine either the day or the year of the slaughtering of the Holy Innocents, though the Armenians believe it to have been fifteen weeks after the birth of Christ. We know that it must have happened no less than forty days after the Nativity, since Christ was presented in the Temple at that time – he had not yet fled to Egypt and the Infants had not yet been killed.
The reason their feast is kept December 28th, within the octave of Christmas, is that the Holy Innocents gave their lives for the newborn Savior. Hence, these first flowers of the Church, martyrs by blood alone, accompany the Holy Child Jesus who entered this world on Christmas day. As they were redeemed by the Birth of Christ, so we today celebrate their birth into eternal life.
These children were not saved without baptism, but they received instead the baptism of blood, through which they were cleansed of original sin and united to Christ’s Body. Washed in their own blood, in place of water, these infants received a non-sacramental participation in the saving death of Christ the Lord, and so share now in his glory. The baptism they received is the most excellent, greater even than the sacramental baptism of water.
Are there three kinds of Baptism: Of Water, of Blood, and of Desire?
The sacrament of baptism derives its power from Christ’s Passion and from the Holy Spirit; but although the effect depends on the cause, the cause far surpasses the effect and does not depend on it. [here I paraphrase St. Thomas, ST III, q.66, a.11] Hence, a man may, without the sacramental baptism of water, receive the sacramental effect from Christ’s Passion, insofar as he is conformed to Christ through suffering for him (i.e. baptism of blood). Likewise a man many receive the effect of baptism by the power of the Holy Spirit, not only without the baptism of water but also without the baptism of blood: insofar as his heart is moved by the Holy Spirit to believe in and love God, and to repent of his sins (i.e. baptism of desire).
Hence we maintain that there are three kinds of baptism: of water (sacramental baptism), of blood (martyrdom), and of the Spirit (earnest desire). This is affirmed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The Church has always held the firm conviction that those who suffer death for the sake of the faith without having received Baptism are baptized by their death for and with Christ. This Baptism of blood, like the desire for Baptism, brings about the fruits of Baptism without being a sacrament.” (CCC 1258)
The baptism of blood and that of desire are called a “baptism” not as though they are sacraments, nor less that they give a sacramental character, but forasmuch as they take the place of baptism. As St. Augustine states, “I perceive that not only can suffering for the name of Christ supply for what is lacking in Baptism, but even faith and conversion of heart, if perchance on account of the stress of the times the celebration of the mystery of Baptism is not practicable.” (De Unico Baptismo Parvulorum 4)
However, the unity of baptism is not thereby destroyed, for the other two baptisms are indeed included in the sacramental baptism of water. For the sacrament of baptism derives its power both from Christ’s Passion and from the Holy Spirit, thus these other two (of blood and of desire) are contained and united in the baptism of water. Hence, we affirm that there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism”(Ephesians 4:5), and that this one baptism is in three kinds: of water, of blood, and of desire.
The Baptism of Blood is the most perfect form of Baptism
These two other kinds of baptism can be called a “baptism” precisely because they produce the effect of the baptism of water, and the efficacy of the sacrament of baptism is derived from Christ’s Passion and from the Holy Spirit. St. Thomas tells us, “Now both the Passion and the Holy Spirit act in each of these three baptisms; most excellently, however, in the baptism of blood. For Christ’s Passion acts in the baptism of water by way of a figurative representation; in the baptism of the Spirit or of repentance, by way of desire; but in the baptism of blood, by way of imitating the Divine act. In like manner, too, the power of the Holy Spirit acts in the baptism of water through a certain hidden power; in the baptism of repentance by moving the heart; but in the baptism of blood by the highest degree of fervor of dilection and love, according to John 15:13, Greater love than this no man hath that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (ST III, q.66, a.12)
We do not say that the baptism of blood is more excellent as a sacrament, for it is not a sacrament. But we claim that it is more excellent in consideration of the effect and of the participation in the cause (namely, the Passion of Christ and the movement of the Holy Spirit). Baptism is simply and absolutely necessary for salvation, for “no man obtains eternal life unless he be free from all guilt and debt of punishment. Now this pleneary absolution is given when a man receives Baptism, or suffers martyrdom: for which reason it is stated that martyrdom ‘contains all the sacramental virtue of baptism,’ i.e. as to the full deliverance from guilt and punishment.” (ST III, q.68, a.2, ad 2) Thus we say that sacramental baptism is necessary for salvation insofar as a man cannot be saved without, at least, baptism of desire or (most excellently) baptism of blood.
These Holy Infants were sanctified in this most excellent manner, baptized in their own blood, washed of original sin, and received into the glory of life everlasting.
You Holy Innocents, Pray for us!