The Slaughter of the Innocents by Domenico Ghirlandaio: the fresco is part of a series of panels in the Cappella Tornabuoni in the Church of Santa Maria Novella, dating from 1486-1490
Today, 28 December, is marked in the Church Calendar as the feastday of the Holy Innocents, sometimes described as the first martyrs for Christ. And so, appropriately, the Christmas poem I have chosen for today is ‘The Holy Innocents’ by Laurence Housman (1865-1959).
Today’s commemoration first appears in the calendar of the Western Church in the Leonine Sacramentary around the year 485, and this day was sometimes known as Childermas.
This day recalls the story of the children who were murdered because of Herod’s rage against Christ (Matthew 2: 16-17). In Saint Matthew’s Gospel, after the visit of the Magi, Herod, in rage and jealousy, slaughtered all the baby boys in Bethlehem and the surrounding countryside in an attempt to destroy his perceived rival, the infant Messiah.
Christian art, poetry and popular piety have treated their memory with tenderness and sympathy, sentiments that have also been accompanied by feelings of indignation against the violence with which they were killed.
On this day it also seems to be appropriate to remember the children who are innocent victims of exploitation, abuse and war throughout the world, and those who suffer violence that threatens their lives, their dignity and their rights.
The poem ‘Holy Innocents’ by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) was written ca 1877. Like so many of her poems, including ‘In the bleak mid-winter,’ which I discussed on Christmas Eve, and her poems about Saint John which I discussed yesterday, her poem ‘Holy Innocents’ was not published until ten years after her death, when it was included in 1904 in The Poetical Works of Christina Georgina Rossetti:
They scarcely waked before they slept,
They scarcely wept before they laughed;
They drank indeed death’s bitter draught,
But all its bitterest dregs were kept
And drained by Mothers while they wept.
From Heaven the speechless Infants speak:
Weep not (they say), our Mothers dear,
For swords nor sorrows come not here.
Now we are strong who were so weak,
And all is ours we could not seek.
We bloom among the blooming flowers,
We sing among the singing birds;
Wisdom we have who wanted words:
here morning knows not evening hours,
All’s rainbow here without the showers.
And softer than our Mother’s breast,
And closer than our Mother’s arm,
Is here the Love that keeps us warm
And broods above our happy next.
Dear Mothers, come: for Heaven is best.
A second, later poem, but also called ‘Holy Innocents,’ was written before 1893, and was published in the same collection in 1904:
Unspotted lambs to follow the one Lamb,
Unspotted doves to wait on the one Dove;
To whom Love saith, ‘Be with Me where I am,’
And lo their answer unto Love is love.
For tho’ I know not any note they know,
Nor know one word of all their song above,
I know Love speaks to them, and even so
I know the answer unto Love is love.
A third poem, also called ‘Holy Innocents’ but dated 1 July 1853, was published in the same volume, but appears to be about the early death of a child rather about the Holy Innocents commemorated on this day:
Sleep, little baby, sleep;
The holy Angels love thee,
And guard thy bed, and keep
A blessed watch above thee.
No spirit can come near
Nor evil beast to harm thee:
Sleep, Sweet, devoid of fear
Where nothing need alarm thee.
The Love which doth not sleep,
The eternal Arms surround thee:
The Shepherd of the sheep
In perfect love hath found thee.
Sleep through the holy night,
Christ-kept from snare and sorrow,
Until thou wake to light
And love and warmth to-morrow.
John Hutton’s ‘Screen of Saints and Angels’ at the entrance to Coventry Cathedral ... the Coventry Carol, dating from the 16th century, recalls the story of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
Much earlier than these Victorian poems is ‘The Coventry Carol,’ which tells the story of the slaughter of the Innocents. This carol dates from the 16th century, and is all that survives from a mystery play:
Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Lullay, thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we do sing
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Herod, the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.
That woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
And ever mourn and sigh,
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Also dating from the 16th century, or perhaps even earlier from the late 14th century, is the hymn ‘Unto us is born a son.’ It has been translated by both George R Woodward and Percy Dearmer. We sang the Woodward version of this hymn at two carol services in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, last week, including the third stanza:
This did Herod sore affray,
And grievously bewilder;
So he gave the word to slay,
And slew the little childer.
However, the Christmas poem I have chosen for today is ‘The Holy Innocents’ by Laurence Housman. He was born in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, a younger brother of the poet AE Housman (1859-1936), who is best known for A Shropshire Lad, including the ‘Six Songs’ and the poem ‘Wenlock Edge,’ set to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Laurence Housman first worked as a book illustrator in London, and the first authors he illustrated included the poet Christina Rossetti. At the same time, he also wrote and published several volumes of poetry and a number of hymns and carols.
His first literary successes came with the novel An Englishwoman’s Love-Letters (1900), and the drama Bethlehem (1902). Some of his plays caused scandals because of his depiction of biblical characters and living members of the royal family, and in 1937 the Lord Chamberlain ruled that no British sovereign could be portrayed on the stage until 100 years after the beginning of his or her reign.
Housman also wrote socialist and pacifist pamphlets and edited his brother’s poems which were published posthumously. For the last three or four decades of his life he lived in Street, Somerset.
In 1945, he opened Housman’s Bookshop in Shaftesbury Avenue, London, founded in his honour by the Peace Pledge Union, of which he was a sponsor. The Peace Pledge Union, one of the earliest pacifist organisations in England, was founded in 1934 by Housman’s close friend, Canon Dick Sheppard (1880-1937) of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, a former Vicar of Saint Martin-in–the-Fields (1914-1926) and former Dean of Canterbury (1929-1931) who had been radicalised by his experiences as a slum priest in the East End of London.
In 1959, shortly after his death, the shop moved to 5 Caledonian Road, London, a two-minute walk from all the King’s Cross and Saint Pancras stations. In 1974, an IRA bomb blew up the pillar box directly outside the shop – the building once housed the local King’s Cross Post Office, from the late 19th century until the 1930s. The explosion destroyed the first issue of the newsletter of the Campaign Against Arms Trade, which had just been posted.
Harry Mister in Housman’s Bookshop before his death
I was first introduced to Housman’s Bookshop two years later in 1976 by its co-founder and its manager until that year, Harry Mister, after meeting him with Bruce Kent at the Hayes Conference Centre in Swanwick, Derbyshire, that year. Harry died on my birthday in 1996, less than a fortnight after his own 92nd birthday. Housman’s Bookshop remains a prime source of literature on pacifism and other radical values.
The Peace Pledge Union has “consistently condemned the violence, oppression and weapons of all belligerents.” It has opposed the Vietnam War and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, it has promoted the ideals of pacifists such as Tolstoy, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, it played an active role in the first Aldermaston marches, its members were active in the formation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), and in recent years it has protested against the war in Iraq.
And so, given Housman’s association, even long after his death, with campaigns against war, it is appropriate to select his poem, ‘The Holy Innocents,’ on this day.
The Holy Innocents by Laurence Housman
When Christ was born in Bethlehem,
Fair peace on earth to bring,
In lowly state of love He came
To be the children’s King.
And round Him, then, a holy band
Of children blest was born,
Fair guardians of His throne to stand
Attendant night and morn.
And unto them this grace was giv’n
A Saviour’s name to own,
And die for Him Who out of Heav’n
Had found on earth a throne.
O blessèd babes of Bethlehem,
Who died to save our King,
Ye share the martyrs’ diadem,
And in their anthem sing!
Your lips, on earth that never spake,
Now sound th’eternal word;
And in the courts of love ye make
Your children’s voices heard.
Lord Jesus Christ, eternal Child,
Make Thou our childhood Thine;
That we with Thee the meek and mild
May share the love divine.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and president of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND)
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