This poem was written in remembrance of the Holy Innocents — those babies who were killed around the time of Jesus’s birth. The man in the poem is imagined to be the father of a Holy Innocent, and the nobleman from Capernaum whose son Jesus saved from death.
He could not sleep.
The tomb was dark, and the stone heavy that sealed it.
He could not sleep for all the innocent blood he had seen shed.
He was an old man. Too old for tears.
Not yet young enough for sleep. He waited and watched.
Thrice he had spoken to him whose body had been sealed
within the tomb, thrice had the old man spoken,
he who was a disciple, but not one of the twelve,
older, gentler in all ways,
and tired, worn with time and experience and the shedding of blood.
He came from Capernaum
and after that his son
who touched the edge of death
was drawn back from the pit
and made whole,
the old man returned to Jesus and said,
“O thou, who hast today been the consolation of my household,
wast also its desolation.
Because of you my first-born died
in that great shedding of innocent blood.
Nevertheless, I believe
though I know not what
or how or why
for it has not been revealed to me.
I only know that one manchild was slain
and one made to live.”
And a second time he spoke
when the Lord kept the children beside him
and suffered them not to be taken away:
“These are the ones that are left us,
but where, Lord, is the Kingdom of Heaven?
Where, Lord, are the others?
What of them? What of them?”
And he wept.
And a third time he spoke
When the Lord turned to Jerusalem
and laughter turned to steel
and he moved gravely
towards the hour that was prepared
and the bitterness of the cup:
then the old man said,
“All your years you have lived
under the burden of their blood.
Their life was the price of yours.
Have you borne the knowledge and the cost?
During those times
when you have gone silent in the midst of laughter
have you remembered all the innocence
slaughtered that you might be with us now?
When you have gone up into the mountain apart to pray,
have you remembered that their lives were cut down
for your life, and so ours?
Rachel’s screams still shatter the silence
and I cannot sleep at night for remembering.
Do you ever forget your children that sleep?
When will you bring them out of the sides of the earth
and show mercy unto them?
Who will embrace them until you come?
I cannot sleep.
But because I have already tasted of the cup
I cannot turn from you now.
I, who live, praise you.
Can those who have gone before you into the pit
celebrate you or hope for your truth?
Tell me, tell me, for I am an old man
and lost in the dark cloud of my ignorance.
Nevertheless, blessed is he
whom thou hast chosen and taken, O Lord.”
He did not speak again.
But he was there when the rocks were rent
the veil of the temple torn in twain
the sun blackened by clouds
the earth quaked with darkness
the sky was white and utterly empty.
The city gaped with loss.
Then, out of the silence,
the Lord went
bearing the marks of nails and spear
moving swiftly through the darkness
into the yawning night of the pit.
There he sought first
not as one might have supposed
for Moses or Elias
but for the children
who had been waiting for him.
So, seeking, he was met
by the three Holy Children
the Young Men
transforming the fire into dew as they cried:
“Blessed art thou, O Lord God, forevermore.”
And all the children came running
and offering to him their blood
and singing: “With sevenfold heat
did the Chaldean tyrant in his rage
cause the furnace to be heated
for the Godly Ones
who wiped our blood like tears
when we were thrust here
lost and unknowing.
The Holy Three
waited here to receive us
and to teach us to sing your coming
forasmuch as thou art pitiful
and lovest mankind.”
So they held his hand
and gave him their kisses and their blood
who could not bear their innocence
and thrashed with his tail
so that the pit trembled with his rage.
But even his roaring could not drown their song:
“For unto Thee are due all glory, honor, and worship,
with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now, and ever,
and unto ages of ages, Amen.”
And the holy children were round about him,
the Holy Innocents and the Holy Three.
They walked through the darkness of the fiery furnace
and the dragon could see their brightness,
yea, he saw four walkers loose
walking in the midst of the fire and having no hurt
and the form of the fourth was like the Son of God.
And he saw the Son of God move through hell
and he heard the Holy Children sing:
“Meet is it that we should magnify thee,
who has stretched out thy hands upon the cross
and hast shattered the dominion of the enemy.
Blessed art thou, O Lord God, forevermore.
O Jesus, God and Savior,
who didst take upon thee Adam’s sin
and didst taste of death
(the cup was bitter),
thou hast come again to Adam
O compassionate One
for thou only art good
and lovest mankind,
Blessed art thou, O Lord God, forevermore.”
So hell was shriven
while the holy children, singing,
transformed the flames to dew,
and the gates of Heaven opened.
Then, by the empty tomb,
the old man slept.