The book of origins is unique, within the New Testament (and, indeed, within the whole literature of antiquity) in reporting a savage, indiscriminate pogrom, ordered by King Herod, and carried out under his watch—the murder of all infant males under two years of age within Bethlehem (Matt 2:16-18).
The story hardly ever features in any Christmas or Epiphany services or sermons. However, a number of contemporary hymn writers have turned their attention to this story. Shirley Erena Murray, a Presbyterian from Aotearoa New Zealand, is right on the money when she highlights the violence and fear at the heart of the story, claims that the infant in the story has “come to plead war’s counter-case”, and articulates the hope that “goodness will outclass the gun, evil has no tooth that can kill the truth.”
Summer sun or winter skies, Christmas comes —
shepherds, angels, lullabies, words recorded by the wise:
read it in the book — take another look . . . .
Shadows track the hawk in flight, Christmas now —
children born in fire and fight, silent night a violent night,
hawks are in control of a nation’s soul
There where terror plies its trade, Christmas now —
children learn to be afraid, minefields of distrust are laid,
evil is in force on a winning course
Child of peace, God’s human face, Christmas now —
come to plead war’s counter-case, bring the dove a nesting place,
though her wings are torn, though her blood is drawn
Winter skies or summer sun, Christmas comes —
still the threads of hope are spun, goodness will outclass the gun,
evil has no tooth that can kill the truth.
That is why the ancient story resonates so strongly with our situation today. Not because “it really happened, exactly like this”, but because it takes us to the centre of our humanity and reveals the depth of God’s presence in our midst. We ought to sing more about it!
Another contemporary hymn writer who has turned his attention to the story of Herod’s tyrannical rampage against the male children in Bethlehem, is the British Methodist, the Rev. Dr Andrew Pratt. Here is a powerful hymn which he has written about this story.
Herod waiting, Herod watching,
Herod grasping, holding power,
Herod fearful for the future,
Herod counting every hour.
Now the thing that he was fearing:
love and justice, peace and health,
here embodied in a person,
God incarnate, heaven’s wealth.
This was more than he could stomach,
human wine skins tear and rend.
Herod’s dream had been confounded,
human power had met its end.
Many children now were crying,
temper triumphed, babies dead.
Mary, Joseph made an exit,
every step was filled with dread.
Into exile they were driven,
fear would ripple through each life:
Jesus challenged vested interests.
Gracious love fuelled hate and strife.
And the children still are crying,
forced to war and harmed by hate.
Still our world is deaf to hear them,
still our loving comes too late.
© Andrew Pratt 18/11/2010
First after Christmas, Matthew 2: 13 – 23,
Herod, Holy Innocents, the flight into Egypt.
What a pity that this potent story, full of pathos, and so resonant with events in the world in which we live today, has all but faded from view in the story that is recounted each Christmas. There are clear words in these carols which show how the story challenges political values and policies and how it connects with the deepest feelings of human existence.
For more on Epiphany, see next post