The celebration of Epiphany, gilded with all the mystique of the ancient orient and illuminated by the miraculous guiding star, has always left me dissatisfied. The scene certainly provides scope for the imagination, what with the intrigue of unknown men of prestige and wisdom prostrating themselves before an infant. And Eliot gives us a more visceral sense of their uncomfortable travels in “Journey of the Magi”: “A cold coming we had of it, just the worst time of year….and the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory.” But the beauty of their reverence of Christ is always overshadowed, in my mind, by Herod’s subsequent rage at the deception of the wise men and the massacre of innocents.
What is the worship of these men from the East worth? They sought Christ, got lost, and went to Herod for help in finding him. Only later were they warned in a dream to avoid the man. Why couldn’t that dream have come a few days earlier? Why was the sacrifice of all those little boys necessary? It’s always troubled me. And now, with my own little boy on the way, I can’t stop thinking about those mothers who were forced to watch the violent murder of their infant sons. The church honors these children as martyrs now with the Feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28th. And everyone seems so used to the idea and so comfortable reminding us that the massacre conveniently fulfills Jeremiah’s prophecy that “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation: Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled because they were no more.”
But what of those mothers who refused to be consoled? Did they ever know peace? Were they ever given a glimmer of revelation or assurance that their loss was not without purpose? How could they have known? How could they have been comforted? How is their suffering a source of glory? I believe firmly in the fundamental connection between pain and beauty, but this is one instance where I simply don’t see the point.
The only true echo of grief over these baby boys I know of is in the haunting Coventry Carol. The gentle dissonance within these verses brings tears to my eyes. In this version, especially, the singers give real weight to the lines “Herod, the king, in his raging/Charged he hath this day;/ His men of might, in his own sight,/ All young children to slay. The song resolves on an unexpected, hopeful, lifted note. But it’s just the very last note. And so it remains a fitting lament.