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The long road of weariness

18 December 2015

Malcolm Guite explores themes of suffering and judgment in a poem and reflection for Holy Innocents’ Day

PA

A cradled refugee child: Syrian families flee violence

A cradled refugee child: Syrian families flee violence

Refugee

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,

Or cosy in a crib beside the font,

But he is with a million displaced people

On the long road of weariness and want.

For even as we sing our final carol

His family is up and on that road,

Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,

Glancing behind and shouldering their load.

Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower

Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,

The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,

And death squads spread their curse across the world.

But every Herod dies, and comes alone

To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.

 

THERE is always a danger of sentimentalising, and so trivialising, the nativity scene. As our houses are deluged in a cascade of cosy Christmas images, glittery frosted cards, and happy, holy families who seem to be remarkably comfortable in strangely clean stables, we can lose track of the essential gospel truth: that the world into which God chose to be born for us was then, as now, fraught with danger and menace.

Indeed, we will not understand the light that shines at Christmas if we remove the dark backdrop. Richard Bauckham’s poem “Song of the Shepherds” restores it for us in the line “The night was ominously black”; but Christina Rossetti set the scene on Advent Sunday with “midnight, black as pitch”.

Herbert, even in the midst of his joyful “Glance”, reminded us of “malicious and ill-meaning harm”; Donne’s “Annunciation” spoke of “death’s force”; Luci Shaw reminded us of “the felt rebuff . . . the lash . . . the sad heart of the human race”.

The feast of the Holy Innocents brings home with full force what might be called “the shadow side” of the Christian story.

 

THE story of Herod’s jealous rage and the massacre of the innocents would be too appalling to bear were we not called upon to contemplate it almost every day in the news.

What Herod did then is still being done around the world by tyrants who would sooner kill innocent people than lose their grip on power.

We are still reeling from the appalling slaughter of children in Peshawar by the Pakistani Taliban, as well as the continued violence, much of it directed towards children, by Islamic State (IS), or Daesh, in Syria and Iraq.

This scarred and wounded world is the one into which Jesus was born, the world he came to save; among those brought by his blood through the grave and gate of death to the bliss of heaven are those children of Bethlehem who died for his name without ever knowing him.

But he knows them, as he knows and loves every child in Syria, Iraq, and Pakistan, and he says of them, to every Herod, “as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25.40).

 

IN THIS sonnet, I have followed the narrative in Matthew 2.13-18, which goes out of its way to mention the death of Herod. The story of the flight into Egypt seems utterly contemporary.

If we acknowledge the idea of kenosis — the self-emptying of God — then we must contemplate the experience of the Christ-child as being exactly the same as that of the disturbed and bewildered children we see being carried by their mothers in desperation out of war zones.

These children cannot possibly know the cause of the quarrel that has destroyed their homes; they could not name or articulate the label that has made them enemies of the state.

Utterly innocent of the long, hideous adult agenda that has visited such devastation on them, they are “fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel”.

Likewise, if we are to take seriously Christ’s teaching at the end of Matthew, the same Gospel that gave us this appalling story — that he is really and substantially in the lives and bodies of those who are oppressed, and whatsoever is done to them is done to him — then we must become aware that the risen Christ is still a refugee.

But this is not to despair. It means that we can still meet him, and help him in his need. We cannot turn back through time to meet the Holy Family as they fled through the deserts of Egypt, but we can certainly meet them now.

And there is one more thing that I tried to draw out in this sonnet. There is a judgement, there is finally an accountability, and, thank God, it is a judgement with mercy.

Perhaps the most profound and paradoxical image in the whole of scripture is that of the Lamb upon the throne.

We should never cease to be astonished by that verse; for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes (Revelation 7.17).

The entire edifice of scripture up to this point has been predicated on the difference between the shepherd and the sheep. “All we like sheep have gone astray” (Isaiah 53.6).

God is figured in the Old and New Testament as the transcendent shepherd: in that sense, utterly different in kind from the sheep. But this verse of Revelation reveals one more meaning of Christmas, of incarnation.

We have a shepherd who knows what it is to be a lamb. He has himself been one of the vulnerable flock; he has been misled by false shepherds, and made victim of the wolf.

And that is why he is able to wipe away the tears from our eyes, because he himself has wept them.

What might this mean for the Herods of this world? It certainly means that they will face judgement; they will meet their victims in Christ, and Christ in their victims, and know and have to acknowledge what they have done.

In that final light, there will be no evasion, no spin, no propaganda, no polite euphemisms — only searing truth.

But right at the heart of the truth will be the Lamb, who died as much for the Herods as for their victims; and, even there, “the need and chance to salvage everything”, the possibility in repentance, for the bloodthirsty themselves, to be “washed . . . in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7.14).

 

This is an edited extract from Waiting on the Word: A poem a day for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany by Malcolm Guite, published by Canterbury Press at £10.99 (CT Bookshop £9.90) (Books, 30 October).

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