Herod's last request
Herod came to dinner we
locked up the silver cutlery—
though king of God's own chosen nation
he had a certain reputation.
Quite a few later remarked
on how his chariot was parked:
it didn't really do much harm,
just set off the odd car alarm
(and anyway they never use
wing-mirrors on BMWs).
One thing we were grateful for—
his guards remained outside the door.
They said they didn't mind it snowing
and whiled away the time by throwing
javelins at next door's cat
(the neighbour's curtains twitched at that).
We set an extra place or two
for the Ethiopian eunuchs who
he brought along to taste his food.
I said his timing's very good,
dropping by on Christmas Day—
we were entertaining anyway.
Herod chewed the turkey fat
and chatted about this and that—
the cost of temple services,
the relative advantages
of burnt offerings over frankincense—
we seemed to have his confidence
and in a weak, unguarded minute
(just like me to drop us in it)
I brought up, casually aside,
the subject of infanticide.
Remembering John the Baptist's head
I was concerned at what I'd said
but then we saw, to our surprise,
a twinkle came in Herod's eyes.
"Why, don't you know what brought me here?
Well, then I must make it clear!
I've come to pay my compliments
to fellows with a common sense.
Don't you think that we might be
in the same business, you and me?
I kill by violence, you neglect—
and here you've earned my deep respect
for I can only be selective:
your methods are much more effective.
Just let an open sewer stink,
give him no clean water to drink
or basic medical supplies
and see how quickly one child dies!
By careful acts of selfishness
you have created such a mess
you now eliminate about—"
(he took his calculator out)
"—thirty thousand every day!"
He smiled and put the thing away.
"You can destroy whole continents
simply by indifference.
But though I like what you don't do,
your actions are impressive too.
You take the mineral resource,
the inexpensive labour force,
most of the profits they can earn
and then you leave them in return
Coca-Cola and Big Mac,
debts they never can pay back,
spare change you feel good in giving,
cardboard packaging to live in.
A hundred million children now
sleep on the planet's streets somehow
apprenticed into useful trades
like prostitution, drugs and AIDS—
though I'm both cruel and sadistic
I can't compete with that statistic,
nor with the armaments I know
you've built to keep the status quo.
I just had swords and knives and spears
but after nineteen hundred years
you have such powerful weapons
their cost alone kills millions!
However population climbs
you can destroy it fifty times
and fight it on a dozen fronts
while you don't feed it even once.
That's big league stuff compared to me
who butchers a baby boy or three.
There's nothing more I need to do—
I'll leave my murdering to you.
A toast is called for now, I think.
This Christmas evening let us drink
to all the damage that's been done
by looking after Number One!"
He raised his glass up to his head—
the wine it held was rich and red—
and looking round from face to face
he said "But we should say a grace!
Give thanks to those in direst need
who starve so we can overfeed
and die to do us sinners good.
We eat their flesh and drink their blood.
Do this, as oft as you remember,
at least once every December."
Then Herod laughed, and drained his wine.
Somehow I couldn't stomach mine,
yet though he smiled, his eyes were grim—
something clearly unsettled him.
"I murdered boys aged two or less,
and this was done under duress.
If you should want to place the blame
then put the Magi in the frame:
if I had not been so deceived
by those wise men, then I believe
much blood would never have been spilled.
I only needed one child killed.
My motive was quite rational:
whoever's emperor just now.
This story of a new-born king
could only be unsettling:
he was a danger, patently,
to national security
and threatened also therewithal
my throne, my life, my soul, my all.
So—proving that my word is good—
I went just as I said I would
to worship at his incarnation.
He had my total dedication.
Everything was sacrificed
until I found the baby Christ.
And did you think I'd failed? Oh no.
Though it took thirty years or so
my people got the brat at last
and strung him up and held him fast
and made quite sure that he was dead.
And there he should have stayed. Instead
something went wrong. I don't know how,
I just know he is not dead now
and like a nightmare in my brain
it happens time and time again—
with lives for stables, hearts for mangers,
he is born to total strangers
and so I cannot rest secure
until the child is found once more
and the botched work of
is completed finally.
That's why I’m here, and why I stay,
for now ten billion times a day
those nails are hammered deeper in
by each act of your human sin
and, though each time the God man dies
somehow he manages to rise,
still there may be—I don't despair—
evil enough to hold him there.
If Christ is born again in you
is he not often murdered too?
Surely someone hates enough
to overcome this power of love?
I depend on you, you see.
Please, finish off this job for me.”
Written for the carol service at St John’s, West Ealing in 1990.
Typical performance time 6 minutes 30 seconds.