The Holy Innocents December 28 2011

Herod “the Great,” king of Judea, was unpopular with his people because of his connections with the Romans and his religious indifference. 

He was insecure and fearful of any threat to his throne. He was a master politician and a tyrant capable of extreme brutality. He killed his wife, his brother and his sister’s two husbands, to name only a few. 
In Matthew's gospel, Herod was “greatly troubled” when astrologers from the East came asking the whereabouts of “the newborn king of the Jews,” whose star they had seen. 
They were told that the Jewish Scriptures named Bethlehem as the place where the Messiah would be born. Herod cunningly told them to report back to him so that he could also “do him homage.” 

They found Jesus, offered him their gifts and, warned by an angel, avoided Herod on their way home. Meanwhile Joseph was warned of Herod's plans in a dream and so he took Jesus and Mary and escaped to Egypt. 

Giotto Flight into Egypt
                                                                         Martyrdom of Holy Innocents Gustav Dore

Herod became furious and “ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under.” The horror of the massacre and the devastation of the mothers and fathers led Matthew to quote Jeremiah: 

 “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more.”

 Rachel was the wife of Jacob/Israel. She is pictured as weeping at the place where the Israelites were herded together by the conquering Assyrians for their march into captivity.


After reading the gruesome tale of Herod I heard some poetry on BBC Radio 4 this morning - the first poem, "The Divine Image" is by William Blake,and is part of a collection of shorter poems  "Songs of Innocence and Experience.”

Blake's poems included engravings and art work, so the words are but part of the whole.

The radio had only one poem when in fact there are two Divine Image poems, so I have posted them both. 

The two perspectives — Innocence and Experience — give a  filter through which the poems can be read.

First the Innocence one and then the Experienced, which is the distorted image of the Divine that man ends up creating : the second poem seems to fit well with the face of humanity that Herod displayed in his fear that God would usurp his own petty earthly greed for power. 

Herod's face is easily still recognisable in the long line of tyrants and dictators that have lived and died since the slaughter of the Innocents in Bethlehem.

The wake of destruction, suffering and disruption of innocent lives they always leave behind them lingers well into centuries beyond the initial acts of terror. 

I don't know how to explain suffering, especially the suffering of innocent children. I don't know why God can't prevent slaughter and injustice. 
Unjust suffering is still a mystery to me, even when I know that God will not intervene because we have been given free will.

Suffering, persecution, and martyrdom always seem to be the lot of all who choose to follow Jesus Christ. It always sickens me when I hear the cliche that there is no crown without the cross. I do believe that Jesus’ suffering, humiliation, and death on a cross, was supposed to have been the message that His death won eternal life for us.

All I can cling to is the beatitude that Jesus said  those who weep, who are reviled and persecuted for righteousness sake are blessed.

All I can do is pray to keep that first innocent divine vision alive somehow and to try and restore it when and wherever it is defiled.

The Divine Image I


To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love 

All pray in their distress;

And to these virtues of delight

Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love

Is God, our father dear,

And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love

Is Man, his child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart,

Pity a human face,

And Love, the human form divine,

And Peace, the human dress.

Then every man, of every clime,

That prays in his distress,

Prays to the human form divine,

Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.

And all must love the human form,

In heathen, Turk, or Jew;

Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell

There God is dwelling too. 

The Divine Image II

Cruelty has a Human Heart,
And Jealousy a Human Face;
Terror the Human Form Divine,
And Secrecy the Human Dress.
The Human Dress is forged Iron,
The Human Form a fiery Forge,
The Human Face a Furnace sealed,
The Human Heart is hungry Gorge.

You can read more on William Blake and the context in which he wrote his 
poetry here. There are many parallels between Blake's time and our own.

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