A Poem for the Fourth Day of Christmas, the Feast of the Holy Innocents (Matt. 2:13-18)
Herod’s Christmas Dinner
‘Glad Tidings?!’ Save your breath, he said,
the child will soon enough be dead.
What fools to fill the sky and sing,
as though the peasant boy’s a king.
That bastard in the manger straw—
looks like no prince I ever saw.
He wails for milk and cries for touch—
no heavenly one could need so much.
Were we to catch a glimpse of God
in that poor piece of human sod …
if this indeed were really true,
why, it would make a claim on you:
then any child might holy be—
black or brown or refugee.
You make your choice; I’ve made mine.
On holy innocents, I will dine.
David R. Weiss
Unpacking the poem
I wrote this poem four days before Christmas. Ironically it became a poem linked to the Feast of Holy Innocents, commemorated four days after Christmas.
The “seed” for the poem was my annual discontent/dismay over how Christmas has become primarily a celebration of consumer capitalism rather than the Christ child.
Each year my discontent takes a slightly different form given the currents events of the season. This year it reflects my despair that so many are consumed with fervor about where manger scenes depicting (soon to be) refugees in flight can be placed and equally fervent insistence over where current day real life refugees cannot be. This year it also echoes our society’s overall continued dismissal of the cry, “Black Lives Matter,” wanting to reframe its specificity in a way that disconnects it from any prophetic anguish.
In my mind I originally began with the voice of an angel speaking in lament on that first Christmas Eve, looking forward in time. That never fully blossomed into a poem, but you catch a faint echo of it in Herod’s reference to “what fools to fill the sky …”
Eventually Herod’s voice stepped forward as a sort of anti-witness to Christmas, his biting sarcasm trying to break through and catch us off guard, hearing truth “through the back door,” so to speak.
The two primary claims I try to make here are:
- However we understand our theological claims about Jesus’ “divinity” (which is, ultimately, a MYSTERY no matter how certain we want to be) the audacity of the Christmas story is to suggest that divinity has become human and vulnerable in a way that redefines BOTH humanity and divinity.
- And—if this redefinition is true to the core of God—if it really reshapes how we see God—then it’s also true to the core of humanity (not simply Jesus) and should also really reshape how we see the people around us. I don’t mean to say that Jesus isn’t unique. He surely is, though we might argue a long time over how he’s unique. But I do mean that in some very real way the truth of the incarnation is to proclaim that every human being—every “poor piece of human sod”—can bear a whole hint of the holy. And that should recast the way we encounter every single person we meet—but especially those most at the margins. Because the incarnation is most miraculous not in what it says about one babe in a manger but in what it says about all babes, all people out at the margins.
Questions for reflection:
I imagined first an angel and then settled on Herod as unlikely person to the truth of Christmas. Where or in whom do you find such unlikely insights?
I suggest that Incarnation (because of what it says about Jesus) says something extraordinary and almost scandalous about “the least of these” around us—something that ought to challenge, unsettle, and spur us into action. What do you think?