The Holy Innocents

Today we remember  an episode of mass infanticide by the King of Judea, Herod the Great, that appears in the Gospel of Matthew 2:16-18

Herod ordered the execution of all young male children in the village of Bethlehem, so as to avoid the loss of his throne to a newborn King of the Jews whose birth had been announced to him by the Magi.

Like much of Matthew's gospel, the incident is introduced as the fulfillment of passages in the Old Testament read as prophecies: Then was fulfilled that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet, saying, A voice was heard in Ramah, Weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children.""

The infants, known in the Church as the Holy Innocents, have been claimed as the first Christian martyrs.

There are so many innocent children that have been slaughtered since Herod.
I wrote the following poem a couple of years ago in memory of the children murdered in the Spanish town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War but the poem is not just for these children. It is in memory of  all children caught up in wars. The poem accompanies the painting of Guernica by Picasso.


On April 27th, 1937, unprecedented atrocities were perpetrated on behalf of Franco against the civilian population of the Basque town of Guernica in northern Spain. Chosen for bombing practice by Hitler's new war machine, Guernica was pounded with high-explosive and incendiary bombs. Residents were cut down as they ran from the crumbling buildings.

Guernica, O little town, how still your people lie,
painted in distress on a black and white canvas,
surreal images are splayed before the living eye.
No one would ever wish to meet in the flesh,
these bodies dying and impaled there.

Picasso’s painting dowses barbaric death,
it’s almost bearable in aesthetic grey.
Streets are smeared in grief;
babies split apart from mothers on their knees,
their lifeblood spilt in dreamless sleep.

Asymmetric death strays and hangs across the eyes.
Nausea fills the shocking air.
It bellows out from savage angles,
in the brokenness of all living things,
a single artificial light glows above the genocidal day.

Open mouthed horses and bulls are falling heavy,
fierce and sorrowing in the dark streets shining.
Dead weights of stricken baby and mother
are gathered in by untimely killing,
in flaming wanton fire and black smoke billowing.

Fierce intense shapes are cut out as growing blood splatters,
spared of colour, looking strange and battered.
Through a window angels keep agonised watch
as children’s sweet heads are laid down
in lullabies of death, fragmented in angular abstraction.

Silently in Guernica, the wondrous gift of life was taken,
leaving human hearts agape in open wounds.
Picture this deepest world of sin in sway.
In these dark streets the hopes and fears
of all the years, met something less than Christ that day.

Author’s note: Picasso’s original painting (in Madrid) is 11 feet x
26 feet. Pressure is increasing for it to be returned to Guernica.

Copyright remains with me the author: Philomena Ewing
from my second volume of poems Siempre Siempre Siempre Published by Palores Publications 2008.

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