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Herod and the Holy Innocents

By Neil Dhingra 

“When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men” (Matt. 2:16). This is the horrific act of a blood-stained tyrant who Josephus says “handled everything with pure anger and bitterness” for he knew he was held in contempt by the Jewish people. The massacre recalls other unspeakable horrors. Pharaoh had called for the deaths of male Hebrew infants (Exod. 1:16). Matthew evokes “what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah… Rachel weeping for her children” (Matt. 2:18; Jer. 31:15), calling into mind her descendants sent into exile by Babylon and made to suffer again in 70 CE by another foreign army (and then yet another).

Nevertheless, there may be something depressingly ordinary in the Massacre of the Innocents. There are other parallels. Suetonius reports, before Augustus was born, a portent was observed, “giving warning that nature was pregnant with a king for the Roman people.” The Senate decreed no male child born that year be reared, which was only avoided by elite self-interest. Later, after the ominous appearance of a comet, Nero took revenge against not only alleged conspirators but also “the children of those who were condemned,” who were “banished or put to death by poison or starvation.” As Eugene Eung-Chun Park writes, “Herod’s scheme… is in line with such an ethos of the ruling elites in an empire like Rome.” (Present-day readers will recognize still more parallels in, say, the birth of Ablai Khan in the film Nomad or the murders of Robert Baratheon’s illegitimate children in Game of Thrones.)

The most fascinatingly (if still depressingly) ordinary portrayal of Herod as a ruling elite is in W.H. Auden’s For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. Behind Auden’s fictional depiction is his reading of Charles Norris Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture. In a review of the book, which he claimed to have read “many times,” Auden writes, “The distinctive mark of classical thought is that it gives no positive value to freedom.” Instead, classical thought looks for a “superhuman” — a “Hercules” — to impose order on what otherwise would remain “meaningless chaos.” Thus, it could never “oppose tyranny on principle.” Of course, Auden recognizes that Christianity can likewise lend itself to tyranny, whether in the time of Theodosius or more recently as “spiritual benzedrine”: “letters have already begun to appear in the press, recommending religious instruction in schools as a cure for juvenile delinquency.” But the classical world was inevitably shaped by a hiatus and the need for a Caesar figure, as the Narrator in For The Time Being says, to subdue the “Welter of Fortune.”

So, in Auden’s oratorio, Herod’s darkly funny monologue resembles the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, who in Cochrane is a figure who manifests that “herculean energy” needed to “maintain the order prescribed by classical reason against the turbulent forces of change.” Herod is less successful. Looking down authoritatively from his window, Herod claims that “things are beginning to take shape.” In 20 years, yes, he has “managed to do a little.” Nevertheless, within the far-reaching Roman Empire, there are only a “few thousand square miles on which it is possible to lead the Rational Life,” and these surrounded by “immense areas of barbaric night” of superstition.

Herod has futilely tried to outlaw many things, including crystals, Ouija boards, alchemy, and séances. Legislation, though, has proven insufficient, and “reason is helpless.” Now, a trio has come to see him, “with an ecstatic grin on their scholarly faces,” telling him that God has been born. This would be the end of all civilization as “knowledge will degenerate into a riot of subjective visions” beyond the reach of all of his corrective education. When Herod seriously considers the possibility of a finite God, it seems impossible: in his dualistic world, the thought that ordinary human beings in their chaos, with their wild longings and subjective visions, could lead genuinely holy lives seems like a sick joke. Against this God that has been born into finitude, Herod must send out for the military, “those professional tidiers.” “How dreary,” he thinks to himself, a most reluctant tyrant.

Strangely, though, Herod’s monologue should end with a peroratio but instead becomes a jumbled series of self-serving pleadings about how God could not possibly dislike him enough to commit this absurdity of becoming finite. “I haven’t had sex for a month. I object. I’m a liberal. I want everyone to be happy.” He ends, anguished, “I wish I had never been born.” In contrast, before Herod speaks to us, Auden has Simeon end with the prayer that “following Him, we may depart from our anxiety into His peace.” Why should Herod fall into despair?

In his review of Cochrane, Auden writes that “classical idealism… identifies evil with the freedom of finite matter and believes that men can escape by becoming conscious of the truth which compels obedience.” Yet if the truth is the redemption of finite matter, and this is simply unimaginable, then Herod is left with that despair that Auden, following Cochrane, sees in Homer. The “evil in the world is due to the gods from whose whims men cannot escape,” except here the whim is that of a God who grotesquely inclines towards “death-bed repentance” and care for “hermits, bums, and permanent invalids.” In contrast, for Simeon, who accepts that the “Flesh is united to the Word,” it becomes clear and welcome that “all are ironically assisted to their comic bewilderment by the Grace of God.”

In the face of this, Herod is left asserting — once again, now desperately — what Cochrane called “classical pride”: that one can defeat intellectual and moral chaos by subjugating “the life of sense and emotion to the demands of a reason which claimed to be unhistorical.” He has restraint. He can go without sex. He does not even have to will his own historical existence. Of course, the paradox is that the “Rational Life” that Herod tries to force on the superstitious world is, as Simeon recognizes, itself deeply superstitious. The human being “must decide which is Real and which only Appearance, yet at the same time cannot escape the knowledge that his choice is arbitrary and subjective.” (Cochrane writes that “the spirit of official religion was utterly pragmatic.”) Herod had criticized the world of superstition, “that incoherent wilderness of rage and terror” as a place where “mothers who give birth to twins are instantly put to death.” In the name of reason, though, Herod has now himself put innocents to death.

What is the lesson of Auden’s Herod for us this Christmas? As mentioned, Auden realizes the danger that Christianity may become a way for a Jesus-Hercules-Augustus to reinvigorate the Empire. Perhaps the lesson is to remember what classicism could never contemplate: that there is a positive value to freedom, that tyranny must be opposed on principle. In For the Time Being, Auden shows us that there is something “numinous” in the free response of voices to the Christ-child, even if they remain rough and unfinished as all of us go “through the land of Unlikeness,… the Kingdom of Anxiety,… the World of the Flesh.” As the wise men and shepherds realize:

And yet, without our knowledge, Love has used
Our weakness as a guard and guide.

Auden’s Rachel speaks of a “lost child” not yet “come to himself in Heaven,” who still speaks “in the language of wounds.” Rachel ends:

But here Grief turns her silence, neither in this direction, not

in that nor for any reason.

And her coldness now is on the earth forever.[/End]

As Jo-Anne Cappeluti writes, “Auden describes a frozen place of not feeling, a ‘coldness’ that is, ironically, not barren: now reproduced ‘forever.’” This frozen place also reminds us of the women “looking on from a distance” at the crucifixion of Jesus (Matt. 27:55).

This is what Herod and his world could not see.


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