Something you don’t see in a Christmas pageant: the slaughter of the innocents. But there it is, in the middle of Matthew’s account.


When Bethlehem’s young children were slain, Jesus was in Egypt. Joseph had been warned in a dream.

But Moses was already in Egypt. As an infant, he escaped by water, the means by which his pursuers were to perish.

Matthew’s baby Jesus is peripatetic, dodging bullets & fulfilling scripture. “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” “He shall be called a Nazarene.”

Luke: baby Jesus with the lambs. Matthew: baby Jesus on the lam.

Caravaggio's "Rest in the Flight into Egypt"

Across from the school, a cemetery. Twenty-six stockings hang there tonight.

Lully, lulla, thow littell tine child; By, by, lully, lullay, thow littell tyne child. [from the N-Town Plays]

How many children were slaughtered? Byzantine liturgy: 14,000. Syrians: 64,000. Copts: 144,000. But modern scholars say around 20.

Peter Paul Rubens's "Massacre of the Innocents"

We’re always elsewhere. My father flunked a physical and missed the Battle of the Bulge. He and his seed. I am St. Elsewhere

All but two of his company died there. Each Christmas, we all give him books on World War II. He spends Christmas afternoons reading them.

Never met a soul who wasn’t, up to that point, elsewhere. Still elsewhere: my neighbor whose business took him to the WTC on September 10.

Giotto's "Massacre of the Innocents"

“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” But he wasn’t quoting Matthew.

One Christmas pageant tracks Matthew. A 16th cent. mystery play. Only one of its carols survives: a mother’s lament for her murdered child.

That woe is me, poor Child for Thee! And ever mourn and sigh, For thy parting neither say nor sing, Bye, bye, lully, lullay. – Coventry Carol

Wikipedia says some of the Coventry Carol’s words “are difficult to make sense of.” Well, we were elsewhere.

Carracci's "The Flight into Egypt"

The author is unknown. But she is survived by a carol, sort of as a wren is survived by its song.

Can one survive well? Can surviving make me “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” despite surviving?

Navez's "Massacre of the Innocents"

Here’s a good rendition of what’s become my favorite Christmas carol:

Happy Childermas (a.k.a. Holy Innocents’ Day and Children’s Mass), celebrated this Thursday (Syrian churches), Friday (Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran), and Saturday (Eastern Orthodox).

The above images of paintings are all in the public domain. From top to bottom: Reni, “Slaughter of the Innocents”; Caravaggio, “Rest on the Flight into Egypt”; Rubens, “Massacre of the Innocents”; Giotto, “The Holy Innocents”; Carracci, “The Flight into Egypt”; and Navez, “Das Massaker der Unschuldigen.” Click the painting’s image for more information.

“Trill” are my Twitters. Tweet suites from @slowreads.

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