Holy Innocents

Every year, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College in Cambridge features a new carol commissioned for the Christmas Eve service. This year, Hungarian poet George Szirtes’s poem “The Flight,” inspired by the plight of refugees trying to make their way to Europe, was set to music by Richard Causton. (Lyrics and link to audio below)

The account of the Magi from Matthew’s gospel, which immediately precedes the carol in the service, tells of Herod’s plan to track down the whereabouts of the newborn Jesus in order that he “may come and worship him also.” Of course, we know Herod’s actual intentions were not as he claimed, and the warning given to the Magi at the end of the reading precipitates another warning to Joseph, where Herod’s secret plot is made explicit.

Mary didn’t get a baby shower, or a nice, sanitary hospital birth. Jesus wasn’t cleaned up by a nurse and wrapped in a warm, fluffy blanket. Nor did family and friends deliver homemade casseroles to the newlywed parents. What Mary and Joseph got after the birth of their son was government persecution, forcing them to flee from their homeland to a foreign country. Sound familiar?

Szirtes writes in his poem, “The sea is a graveyard / the beach is dry bones.” I can’t help but think of the now-famous, distressing photograph of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, whose family sought to escape political unrest in their native Syria, lying dead on a Turkish beach.

Of course, Kurdi’s death, gut-wrenching as it is, is only one case among many, illustrative of a global crisis. Jesus and his family were among the lucky ones who escaped persecution and were even able to return to their homeland, but that by no means lessens the tragedy that follows in Matthew’s gospel–Herod’s ordered massacre of all children two years old and younger in and around Bethlehem. And it by no means lessens the tragedy of the refugee crisis, or our broken immigration system, or the national epidemic of gun violence. As the gospel writer mourns in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, so too we cry out:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
   wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
   she refused to be consoled, because they are no more. (Matthew 2.18)

On this day, when the Church commemorates the massacre of the Holy Innocents, just days after the “silent night, holy night” of Christmas, we remember also those “holy innocents” of our own day, Kurdi included, and we pray:

We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem by order of King Herod. Receive into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims. By your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. (Prayer of the Day for The Holy Innocents, Martyrs, Evangelical Lutheran Worship)

Words: George Szirtes
Music: Richard Causton
Oxford University Press

[Link to audio available here, accessed 26 December 2015]

The child on the dirtpath
finds the highway blocked
The dogs at the entrance
snarl that doors are locked
The great god of kindness
has his kindness mocked

May those who travel light
Find shelter on the flight
May Bethlehem
Give rest to them.

The sea is a graveyard
the beach is dry bones
the child at the station
is pelted with stones
the cop stands impassive
the ambulance drones

We sleep then awaken
we rest on the way
our sleep might be troubled
but hope is our day
we move on for ever
like children astray

We move on for ever
our feet leave no mark
you won’t hear our voices
once we’re in the dark
but here is our fire
this child is our spark.

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