“Herod then with fear was filled, ‘A PRINCE?. . . ‘“ or, attention will be paid

Do you ever wish you’d paid attention in school?

Not the dreaded “rhetorical question! I don’t care if everyone who’s ever written about writing arguments says it’s a good beginning for an essay. It’s disingenuous. If you know the answer, say it, and if you don’t know the answer, it’s a trap. Reminiscent of a lover saying, “If you don’t know what you did wrong, I’m not going to tell you.”

Entrance to the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

Entrance to the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

I wish I’d paid attention in many places other than school.

That’s how you begin an essay. Repeat strategic ideas in strategic places. Yes. Repeating important words helps hold an argument together—and keeps your audience’s attention. It’s a device of good preachers.

If you want someone to pay attention to what you’re saying, repeat nouns and verbs. See? I’m giving you a lecture on writing an argument, and you didn’t even realize it because I have seduced you into paying attention.

In the 1990s, The New Interpreter’s Bible was published. My dad was in his 80s, but, being forever curious, he subscribed—twelve volumes delivered over a year. What would a retired Baptist preacher in his 80s want with this set of books? He wanted to keep up with scholarship in case he had to preach. He was a man who paid attention to what was going on around him.

I pay attention sometimes. When Dad and Mom were moving to a new much smaller assisted living apartment and he was getting rid of his books, I paid attention and retrieved the NIB so they are on my bookshelf, and—believe it or not—I use them quite a bit. Usually to find critical information about some fine point of Christian or Biblical history I want to know about.

Like the Feast of the Holy Innocents (Martyrs) on the calendar of the Roman Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran, and Episcopal Churches. Pay attention! You didn’t see that coming, did you? If you had really been paying attention, you would have guessed it from my title.

All Christians know the story. The Wise Persons from the east show up in Bethlehem looking for the king they know has been born (from looking at the stars—Christian history IS based on astrology, after all). So they arrive at the king’s palace (Herod) and ask where the new king is. Herod says he doesn’t know, but he’d like to pay him homage, so when the Wise Persons find the king, please come back and tell him. An angel tells the Wise Persons just to go on home—and tells Joseph to get Mary and the child off to Egypt because Herod is going to slaughter the baby boys in Bethlehem to get everyone’s attention to remember he’s the puppet king set up by Rome.

This story exists only in the Gospel according to Matthew. It’s in none of the secular histories of Herod’s reign. However, it’s not an unlikely event because Herod did lots of similar things, killing many of his own people and the like to get the attention of the ones who were left. But, of course, Matthew had a theological agenda—to show how the life of Jesus paralleled the history of Israel, so he’s the Messiah. The prophet Jeremiah said, “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children . . .” Rachel is one of the wives of Jacob, helping to establish the Biblical ideal of marriage in which a man has two wives (sisters) and they each give him a concubine to bear children for him that they will raise as their own. You know, monogamy.

Rachel's Tomb, Bethlehem

Rachel’s Tomb, Bethlehem

Rachel’s tomb is in Bethlehem, but you can’t get there from the East, where the Wise Persons came from, because the Apartheid Wall and the IDF won’t let you through.

I hope you’re paying attention to all of these layers and layers of meaning, politics, and theology because it turns out the Slaughter of the Innocents (today, December 28, the Fourth Day of Christmas) is pretty important if you’re following and believing the story of the Incarnation.

In Baptist Sunday School decades ago, we learned about Herod killing all the little boys. We had to because it’s in the Bible. We didn’t say the prayer for the day from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, however.

We remember this day, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by the order of King Herod. Receive, we beseech thee, into the arms of thy mercy all innocent victims; and by thy great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish thy rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.  

I remember the story most clearly because in college we sang the little carol, “Unto us a Boy Is Born.” And J. William Jones had us emphasize the incredulous question of Herod, “. . . ‘a PRINCE?’ he said, ‘in Jewry.’” For years I had a recording in which, if you paid attention, you could hear us shouting that word. It’s quite effective. (Here all I can do is detach and try to accent the note.)

A funny thing, paying attention and memory. Something about this little carol lives in a special place in my (conscious and) unconscious mind. I don’t think about it often, and when I do, I don’t “believe” any of the story. But it gets my attention and helps me think about what I do believe, what is real, what is eternal. Those realities that have more levels of meaning than I can possibly sort out.

Oh, in case you missed it, this essay is about paying attention.

(See “notes” below video)

I have removed the shepherds from the nativity scene and left the Wise Men. Also, you may notice three wooden ornaments in the little tree. They were carved by the Salsa family of Bethlehem — the carving industry is nearly ended because of the Apartheid Wall around Bethlehem.

“Old Jewry” is a street in the financial district of London (still). “Jewry” is a Renaissance word for “ghetto,” so it is logical that the carol would use the word.

Unto us a boy is born,
King of all creation:
Came He to world forlorn,
Lord of every na – – -tion.

Cradled in a stall was He
Midst the cows and asses;
But the very beasts could see
He all men surpass – – – es.

Herod then with fear was filled:
“A PRINCE,” he said, “in Jewry!”
All the little boys he killed
At Bethl’em in his fu – – – ry.

Now may Mary’s son, who came
Long ago to love us,
Lead us all with hearts aflame
To the joys a – – -bove us.

—The words and original melody are in a manuscript of the 15th century There are many variants in other manuscripts. The melody in this form is from Piae Cantiones of 1582. The words are from the Lateinishe Hymen of the same year. The harmony is by Martin Shaw for the Oxford Book of Carols.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: