Because his crime is tragic, his punishment is comic…

 

Cartoon by G. K. Chesterton

Then what had been spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was  fulfilled: “A VOICE WAS HEARD IN RAMAH, WEEPING AND GREAT MOURNING, RACHEL WEEPING FOR HER CHILDREN; AND SHE REFUSED TO BE COMFORTED, BECAUSE THEY WERE NO MORE.” ( Matthew 2:18)

Chesterton wrote about Herod and his atrocity upon the children of Bethlehem from two vantages: First, in a biting satirical way, where his pen was used as sword, both as artist and writer, and then again, 5 years later, with deep mourning in his masterpiece, The Everlasting Man.  The pen and ink drawing above gives us a peek into how deeply this event from the past affected Chesterton as he “resurrects” the innocents in order to taunt Herod.

Nothing could be more bitterly tragic than the scene in this Nativity drama, in which the mothers sing a lullaby to the children they think they have brought into safety the moment before the soldiers of Herod rush in and butcher them screaming on the stage. Nothing could be more broadly farcical than the scene in which King Herod himself pretends that he has manufactured the thunderstorm….

We have seen a real King Herod claiming the thunders of the throne of God, and answered by the thunder not merely of human wrath but of primitive human laughter. He has done murder by proclamations, and he has been answered by caricatures. He has made a massacre of children, and been made a figure of fun in a Christmas pantomime for the pleasure of other children. Precisely because his crime is tragic, his punishment is comic; the old popular paradox has returned.

-G.K. Chesterton,  The Humour of Herod, The Uses of Diversity, 1920

Read the Lecture: The Uses of Diversity

Read the rest of the essay: The Humour of Herod

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…We all know the story of how Herod, alarmed at some rumor of a mysterious rival, remembered the wild gesture of the capricious despots of Asia and ordered a massacre of suspects of the new generation of the populace. Everyone knows the story; but not everyone has perhaps noted its place in the story of the strange religions of men. Not everybody has seen the significance even of its very contrast with the Corinthian columns and Roman pavement of that conquered and superficially civilized world. Only, as the purpose in his dark spirit began to show and shine in the eyes of the Admen, a seer might perhaps have seen something like a great gray ghost that looked over his shoulder; have seen behind him filling the dome of night and hovering for the last time over history that vast and fearful face that was Moloch of the Carthaginians; awaiting his last tribute from a ruler of the races of Shem. The demons also, in that first festival of Christmas, feasted after their own fashion. ….Herod had his place, therefore, in the miracle play of Bethlehem because he is the menace to the Church Militant and shows it from the first as under persecution and fighting for its life. For those who think this a discord, it is a discord that sounds simultaneously with the Christmas bells. For those who think the idea of the Crusade is one that spoils the idea of the Cross, we can only say that for them the idea of the Cross is spoiled; the idea of the Cross is spoiled quite literally in the cradle.

-G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, 1925

Image source: Massacre of the Innocents, Guido Reni, Dec 31, 1610, Wikimedia Commons

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