The Holy Innocents

Fr Gerard braved -2c to film his reflection at Horsell Common
The Massacre of the Innocents by Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-1594), Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice

The Holy Innocents are the children who were slaughtered at the orders of King Herod, in the hope that by killing every boy born in Bethlehem at the same time as Jesus, he would succeed in killing the new-born King of the Jews.

There was nothing about those baby boys that made them deserve death. Look at any one of them, and you can see that he had no chance to do anything, or be anyone, or become anyone. He had done nothing. He had done nothing bad, he had done nothing good. He was born, and then he died, and that was all there was to him. So passive are these babies that some people find it hard to understand how they can share the title of “martyr” with people like St Stephen (the day before yesterday), who insisted on preaching the truth until his hearers stoned him for it, or St Thomas Becket (tomorrow), who insisted on living the truth until his king had him killed because of it. These children did not insist on anything except their mothers’ milk; and unlike Stephen and Thomas, there was no voluntary act of theirs that we can see as making the difference between being martyred and not being martyred.

So in our rational human terms these children are a puzzle, and that is one reason why God has inspired the Church to celebrate this very feast – to show us how inadequate our seemingly rational, worldly-wise thoughts are. As he reminds us again and again throughout salvation history, his thoughts are not our thoughts. Babies may not rank high on the scale as far as our human calculus is concerned; but then neither do sparrows, and yet God has told us that God sees and counts every one of those.

The Holy Innocents can stand, therefore, for the “unimportant” and “unnecessary” pawns, child and adult alike, that permeate the whole of human history, the ones who can be sacrificed for some greater cause because they “don’t really matter”; the eggs that were broken to make an omelette… or even broken to make nothing at all. There are plenty of them, one way or another. The feast of the Holy Innocents reminds us that in God’s eyes (that is, according to the true value of things), no-one is unimportant, no-one is unnecessary, no-one “doesn’t really matter.” However meaningless their lives and deaths may seem to us, they shine glorious in heaven.

On a more personal level, the honour given to the Holy Innocents reminds us that if we suffer or even die for God’s sake, it has value even if we have little or no say in it ourselves. Honouring them effectively honours also the martyrdom of the people these children could have become, and their children’s children as well; and at the same time we can remember the contemporary and continuing massacre of those who die before


Refugee (Malcolm Guite)

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.

Arise, shine; for your light has come

By now many of us will have put up our Christmas lights. But the origin of this festivity which we link with Christmas is more complicated than it may first seem. The pagan festival of light on the 21st December welcomed the return of light at the winter solstice acknowledging that all beginnings emerge from darkness. Yule or Yuletide (“Yule time” or “Yule season”) is a festival historically observed by the Germanic people. Many present-day Christmas customs and traditions such as the Yule log, Yule goat and Yule singing stem from pagan Yule traditions. For Christians this all has new meaning, as the light we look to is that of Christ who overcomes darkness with new life.

Isaiah 60: 1-6 NRSV

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.

Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.”

Reflection

In the Old Testament the great Prophet Isaiah sees the hope of Israel as a brilliant light that will reach the darkest corners of the earth and human experience. In the New Testament, the Gospelers recognise that Jesus is that promised light, which john describes as: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5)

This light, which we celebrate in Advent in anticipation of the great feast of Christmas is first known inside a person, in the womb of Mary the mother of Jesus. Following the announcement of the angel Gabriel, God overshadows Mary, and she conceives within her womb the Emmanuel, which simply means, ‘God is with us.’ Mary is the first Christian, the first person to carry the light of Christ and share that light with everyone, the light that enlightens the nations. For the truth about the Incarnation, the God-event when the very light of the creator chooses to dwell among mortals, is that God does not stand aside but actually engages in what it is like to live, to know life, love, and all the emotions and experiences of being alive. The light comes among us. At the start of John’s Gospel (his prologue) he introduces another prophet – John the Baptist. The people ask, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” (John 1:22,23)

John acts as a bridge between the Old and New Testament – he points beyond himself, like Mary ever Virgin, to where the light truly dwells. But what about us? Do we long to dwell in light? Do we look forward to longer days and new life? Are we people of the light, who point to God and Jesus in all we say and do? Do we seek to bring the light of love into every situation?

As we decorate our homes and community with lights, to change the darkness of December into the hope of new light and life, may we remember how God chose to come among us, to bring his light into the darkness, just as Isaiah reminds, the light has come – his glory appears! (Isaiah 60:1)


Lord, the light of Your love is shining, in the midst of the darkness shining

Jesus, Light of the World, shine upon us, set us free by the truth You now bring us

Shine on me, shine on me.

Shine Jesus, shine, fill this land with the Father’s glory

Blaze Spirit, blaze, set our hearts on fire

Flow river, flow, flood the Nations with grace and mercy

Send forth your word, Lord, and let there be light.

Lord, I come to Your awesome presence, from the shadow into Your radiance

By the blood I may enter Your brightness, search me, try me, consume all my darkness

Shine on me, shine on me.

As we gaze on Your kingly brightness, so our faces display Your likeness

Ever changing from glory to glory, mirrored here, may our lives tell Your story

Shine on me, shine on me.


Lord, you have shown us the way from darkness into the light. May all who struggle amidst the darkness of this present age, see the light which is your love among us. Grant us all the grace to see a way forward through the present challenges of our time, illumined by your love. Amen. 

Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus!

O come thou Root of Jesse

Today we are considering the Root of Jesse from the prophecy of Isaiah.

One of the past-times I’ve taken up this year has been researching my family tree. I admit that I thought it would be fairly straight-forward given modern technology but it really isn’t. Sometimes you’re making educated guesses about ancestors and undertaking research to see if you’re right. And I’m finding the more I research people that more I empathise and feel connected to them. In my family so far we have peasant farmers, railway workers, professional musicians, social climbers, teachers, soldiers and factory workers. Part of the family lived in the same villages in the borders of Scotland for centuries; others were moved in the Highland Clearances and ended up in Edinburgh.

There’s great contentment in knowing more about my roots.

Root of Jesse

The Root of Jesse is depicted in orthodox and Western Christian art as a way for us to understand Christ and his origins. We know how important it was to Matthew and Luke, the Gospel writers, that the genealogy of Jesus was illustrated for the communities they were writing for. They needed to know that Jesus was from the Davidic line. Jesse, father of King David being a direct ancestor of Jesus, Immanuel.

Our reading for today establishes that genealogy. Jesus fulfils that prophecy.

A couple of years ago, Jane Williams explored Advent in a series of articles for the Church Times. She says of the Root of Jesse: “The tree that looks dead, looks as though its story is at an end, will blossom again, and with it the new age will dawn.”

She continues:

“Isaiah describes the coming one as wise, strong, and just. Nothing deceives God’s Messiah, because he does not judge by human standards but by divine, and so the world can at last be at peace. “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11.6-7).”

A little child. A child that we know will establish our relationship with God, creating a new covenant with the Creator.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory o’er the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Thank you to Br Paul-Vincent and the monks of St John’s Abbey, Minnesota for giving us permission to use this recording.

Malcolm Guite reflects on the Root of Jesse:

O Radix

All of us sprung from one deep-hidden seed,

Rose from a root invisible to all.

We knew the virtues once of every weed,

But, severed from the roots of ritual,

We surf the surface of a wide-screen world

And find no virtue in the virtual.

We shrivel on the edges of a wood

Whose heart we once inhabited in love,

Now we have need of you, forgotten Root

The stock and stem of every living thing

Whom once we worshiped in the sacred grove,

For now is winter, now is withering

Unless we let you root us deep within,

Under the ground of being, graft us in.

Malcolm Guite

We are grateful to Malcolm Guite for giving us permission to publish the poem here.

Welcome to Maranatha in Thorpe

This series of short bible readings, reflections, poetry and prayers is an opportunity for us to journey together through the festive season and hear again God speaking to us, at a time of real challenge for many.

Fr. Damian Harrison-Miles, Vicar of St Mary’s, Thorpe

Christmas 2020 will be like none before, and I’m sorry if my saying that has come as a surprise – you have probably guessed that much already. For many in our community there is great uncertainty right now over work and employment, housing and bills, food and even if there will be a turkey to put on the table.

For our part at St Mary’s we are doing all we can to support our schools and the local food bank and to reach out with love to the elderly, housebound and vulnerable.

This will also be a time of change for the church as we re-work our Christmas services to maintain social distancing and come to terms with just 40 people physically present in the building and unable to sing.

These changes feel like a bereavement for many – but are nothing compared to the seismic loss that the death of loved one due to Covid, or such loss of anyone has upon our lives and by extension community and social networks.

So, we begin this series Maranatha, praying come Lord Jesus, come amid our fears and struggles to comfort and bring hope. Lord we seek your guidance and love, to renew our hearts, our lives and our faith.


You can follow all of Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus on this website.

We’ll try to post additional resources to complement each reflection, allowing you to deepen your faith.