Refugee: A Poem for the Feast of the Holy Innocents

Refugee: A Poem for the Feast of the Holy Innocents December 28, 2017


December 28 is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the day the Church remembers and commemorates King Herod’s massacre of all boys two and under after being duped by the wise men. We read about it in the Gospel of Matthew:

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more. (Matthew 2:16-18)

Here is a poem by Malcolm Guite inspired by this scene in the early life of Christ. The poem reigns us in from sentimentalizing or romanticizing the birth of Jesus in the nativity. It’s important to remember that Jesus was not born in the middle of a bucolic snowstorm on a beautiful farm in Montana (to paraphrase my It’s called “Refugee” and it appears in his wonderful poetry anthology Waiting on the Word: a poem a day for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. You can hear him read the poem at his blog.

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.


If you’re interested in the intersection of theology and poetry, I encourage you to check out Transpositions, the online journal of the Institute of Theology, Imagination and the Arts. They are working on a six-week series of posts that provide theological commentary on the poems and commentary in Guite’s anthology: Waiting on the Word: A Reflective Symposium. Here are links to the posts up to this point:

Waiting on the Word: John Donne’s ‘Annunciation’

Waiting on the Word: George Herbert’s ‘Christmas (I)’

Waiting on the Word: Anne Ridler’s ‘Christmas and Common Birth’

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