Wednesday, 28 December 2011
A Poem for Holy Innocents
Nought loves another as itself,
Nor venerates another so,
Nor is it possible to thought
A greater than itself to know.
'And, father, how can I love you
Or any of my brothers more?
I love you like the little bird
That picks up crumbs around the door.'
The Priest sat by and heard the child;
In trembling zeal he seized his hair,
He led him by his little coat,
And all admired the priestly care.
And standing on the altar high,
'Lo, what a fiend is here! said he:
'One who sets reason up for judge
Of our most holy mystery.'
The weeping child could not be heard,
The weeping parents wept in vain:
They stripped him to his little shirt,
And bound him in an iron chain,
And burned him in a holy place
Where many had been burned before;
The weeping parents wept in vain.
Are such thing done on Albion's shore?
William Blake. A Little Boy Lost
I have chosen this poem by William Blake for Holy Innocents day because Christmas is a time when we should be challenged. Far from being a sentimental festival, Christmas is followed by the feast of the first martyr and a commemoration of the slaughter - although it is probably not historical fact - of the male children under the age of two. We keep pretty quiet about Holy Innocents nowadays, it's not the sort of thing that can be described as "for the children", although it has to be said that it was a very popular element in the medieval mystery plays, apparently the butchers would often act out this scene and you have to admit that a villain like Herod gave great dramatic potential and the chance to boo and hiss to your heart's content.
And that is the perhaps the problem, it is only too easy to see evil and atrocity in others but we can be blind to our own cruelties and abuse of others. Holy Innocents should not be about booing or hissing Herod, but about recognising the potential for cruelty and evil closer to home, in all our systems of power and control. The Church itself has not been immune from hurting and damaging those entrusted to its care, as has been evident in some of the depressing abuse scandals which have emerged in recent years. In Little Boy Lost, a child questions the commandments to love God and others as himself and asks how can this be possible? The priest's reaction of burning anger and "trembling zeal" at this heresy is vividly conveyed and he does no more than seize the child and burn him to death on the altar while his parents weep and the onlookers approve!
What a shocking and radical poem! The little boy in his vulnerablity and innocence represents anyone small or powerless who dares to question the system, and Blake himself as a dissenter would have known about the prejudice and violence that could be condoned and colluded with in the name of religion - or indeed in the name of any insititution or ideology. Blake ends his poem with a question to make us think - "Are such things done on Albion's shore?" We might ask ourselves today whether injustice, abuse and cruelty are still perpetrated in the name of power, greed or ideology, whether abroad or closer to home. On Holy Innocents, and at any other time of the year, we only need to look at the headlines to know the answer.