Archive for the ‘Bethlehem’ Tag

The Greatest Gift: The Story of the Other Wise Man   3 comments

Although Twelfth Night is no longer as important as it once was in Britain and elsewhere, Epiphany is still marked in the calendar as the day after Christmas when we think about the visit of the three travellers, the ‘wise men’ who made, as T S Eliot wrote in his poem ‘The Journey of the Magi‘, ‘such a long journey at the worst time of the year’.

Henry van Dyke (1852-1933), a modernist who pu...

Henry van Dyke (1852-1933), a modernist who pushed for revisions to the Westminster Confession of Faith, 1900-1910. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another Story which is not so well-known tells us that, as is quite possible, there were more than three travellers, and that a fourth set out but failed to follow the star to reach Bethlehem in time to greet the infant Jesus. The original story, by the Nineteenth-century American writer Henry Van Dyke, is quite long, so, in my lessons this week, I start with the re-telling of it by Susan Summers, a Worcestershire teacher, in her recently published and beautifully illustrated book, The Greatest Gift (Bristol: Barefoot Books, 1997: www.barefoot-books.com) and then summarise the rest of the story in a form which, I hope, is accessible to second language learners at pre-intermediate level and above (it has been tested with adults and adolescents already). Whether or not you’re a teacher or formal learner, I hope you will enjoy the story and find it useful as well as inspiring…

Cover of "The Story of the Other Wise Man...

Cover of The Story of the Other Wise Man

Long ago in the city of Ecbatana, high among the mountains of Persia (in what today we call Iran), there lived a man named Artaban. From a tower at the end of his beautiful garden Artaban used to study the secrets of nature, especially the secrets of the night sky…One night, he and three of his friends, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, noticed a new star rising, which shone more brightly than any they had ever seen. They knew that this star signified the birth of a great teacher and they agreed to follow the star and ‘pay homage’ (or ‘worship’) to the child.

 

 

 

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Artaban made preparations for a long journey, taking with him a ruby, a sapphire and a pearl to give to the ‘King of Kings’. He was to meet his companions far to the East by the Temple of the Seven Spheres in Babylon. But on the way, he stopped to help a dying man and so arrived late at the temple. His friends had already departed, and desperate to see the new-born king, Artaban had to set off across the desert alone. So he returned to Babylon, where he sold his glittering sapphire and his beloved (but very tired) horse Vasda in exchange for a ‘caravan’ of camels. Then he set out across the desert.

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Like his three friends, Artaban had read the prophecies and studied the stars, so he knew that this ‘Son of David’ would be born in Bethlehem in Judea. As he came near to the town, he had to crouch down in the ditch by the Roman road as a troop of soldiers came galloping along with swords drawn. He followed them into a nearby village, and was startled to hear the cries of young children and their parents, all in great pain and distress. The soldiers were everywhere, breaking down doors and bringing from the houses the very young babies and infants, one and two years old.

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As Artaban sheltered in a doorway and could hear the sound of crying from inside the house. He pushed his way past the door and saw the frightened mother screening something with her body. She had hidden her child from the soldiers and was afraid they might return. Artaban comforted her and when later a soldier did look in, Artaban stood in front of the mother with his arms raised. Not wishing to risk his own life in a struggle with a man, the soldier left and soon they could hear the sound of retreating troops. The mother had saved her boy but was still very upset by the damage done to her poor home by the soldiers’ search for him. Again, Artaban comforted her, this time by giving her the ruby which was to have been part of his gift for the Christ-child of Bethlehem. With this she had the money to build a new home and a new life for her son.

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When Artaban reached Bethlehem, he found his way to Joseph‘s family home, but was told that Joseph, Mary and the baby had left shortly after his friends had visited, bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The family was on their way to Gaza and the Via Maris, the Great ‘Sea Road’ to Egypt. Joseph had been warned in a dream of the danger from Herod, as had his friends, who had also set off in the opposite direction from Jerusalem, intending to return to Babylon via the Great Road to the North, via Damascus and Nineveh, to avoid Herod and his soldiers. Although Jesus’ refugee family had left behind the gifts of Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar, fearing what might happen if they were caught carrying them in Gaza, Artaban decided he would take the pearl with him in the hope that it may be of some use to them on their return to Galilee, as Joseph’s family told him they did not intend to return to Bethlehem until Herod was dead, though they wouldn’t tell him exactly where the family would be living. In any case, the pearl was small enough to be carefully hidden in the babe’s ‘swaddling clothes’. So, Artaban thanked Joseph’s family, hoping to catch up with the refugees on the road south to Egypt and then turn northwards after his friends. However, he could not find the family in Gaza, and though he followed the road all the way to the Nile, there was no sign of them anywhere in Egypt.

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Artaban returned to Palestine and searched for the boy king everywhere during the next thirty years, and always hoped to meet him one day and present him with the pearl. Towards the end of his search in Galilee, he began to hear many stories of Jesus’ actions and sayings, but somehow never caught up with him. Then, after thirty-three years had passed, he heard that Jesus had gone to Jerusalem for Passover, with his disciples. He hurried to catch up with the crowds from Galilee, but when he finally arrived in Jerusalem the feast was already happening and there were crowds everywhere. He heard that Jesus had been tried and condemned to death. Could he get to see him just once, perhaps with the aid of the precious pearl?

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On the Friday of Passover, just before the Jewish Sabbath, he pushed his way through the crowds towards the street where the condemned criminals carried their crosses up to a hill shaped like a skull, ‘Calvary’. Artaban passed through a crowded square where he found a young child being sold as a slave to pay for his family’s debts. He stood by a heartbroken woman whose boy was just then being offered for sale. As the bidding went on, the woman became more and more distressed. Just as the sale was being made, Artaban stepped forward and gave the mother the pearl with which to buy back her son. Now he had no gift left for Jesus.

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When he reached the Way of the Cross, Jesus was just passing. There was a great crowd and many people were leaning out of windows to get a better view of this ‘King of the Jews’ passing by in the narrow street below. From a balcony above Artaban saw a tile fall down, straight towards the head of the young boy he had just saved from slavery. He pushed the boy aside, and the tile hit his head instead. As he fell, dying, Jesus turned to him at that moment and, with a look which told Artaban that his story of sacrifice was known, said ‘as you have given to others, so you have given to me.

When did we meet the King? Sheep to the Left, Goats to the Right!   1 comment

Photo

 

Above: An illustration from The Last Battle by C S Lewis

Below: A Picture from The Greatest Gift: The Story of Artaban, The Fourth Wise Man

Matthew 25 v 31 – 26 v 5

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I wrote the following ‘paraphrase’ after listening to a sermon on this passage in my local (Hungarian) Baptist Church on Sunday. It made me reflect on the words of Jesus and the point of this parable in relation to recent news from various countries. The parable is often used to point to the need for each Christian to take action to help the poor and needy in society, but it seems to me that it’s really more concerned with the responsibility of ‘the nations’ for the poor among them, with the need for us to take collective responsibility for the poor, the sick, the immigrants and the prisoners among us. Viewed in this light it has a fresh, revolutionary meaning for me this Christmas, as well as reminding me of the self-sacrifice of Artaban in the story pictured above. The fourth wise man never gets to see either the infant or the adult King, because he stops to help a sick man as he begins his journey to Bethlehem. At the end of the story, though he is a ‘stranger’ with an oriental religion, he is received into heaven by the ‘Shepherd King’ with the words spoken to the righteous sheep.

“All the nations were gathered before the Shepherd King, who sat on his throne with his great crook and separated out the sheep from the goats. He shepherded the sheep to their left, his right, and blessed them, giving them each a share in his inheritance from his father. They became his ‘Righteous’, for, as he told them:

When I was hot and thirsty, at the height of summer, you gave me a free water bottle. When I was hungry, you invited me to the soup kitchen in the town square. When I was a poor immigrant, you helped me find a job and a place to live, and helped me settle in. When I was on my own, sleeping on the street, you invited me to Christmas lunch at your church. When I was freezing cold, because I had no winter coat, you gave me your old sheepskin coat, which you had donated to a charity. When I was so ill in bed that I could not get up, you came to care for me until I recovered. When I was in prison, you organised a Christmas Party for me and the other inmates.

Pleased, yet puzzled, ‘the Righteous’ asked him:

When did we meet you as an immigrant and invite you in, or gave you a coat, or visited you when you were sick or in prison?

The King replied:

I tell you the truth. Though you had little power, whenever you ministered to our poor and destitute brothers and sisters, you ministered to me.

Then he turned to those on his left, who thought they were among the Righteous. They included government ministers and Members of Parliament, including some bishops. He told them:

You always set yourselves above the people you were chosen to minister to, and in so doing you have set yourselves apart from me. You have chosen your own way, which is different from mine, so your can continue on that way forever. For when I was thirsty, you removed the fountains from the public parks, so I would have nothing to drink there. When I was hungry, because of your policies, you refused to support the food banks set up by the charities to help poor families. When I was an immigrant, looking for honest work, you refused to give me a work permit, even though you had agreed in the Assembly of Nations that you would. When I was freezing on the streets in the Bleak Midwinter, you sent the police to caution me for vagrancy and then had me arrested and sent before the magistrate. She sent me to prison, with the murderers and rapists. At least there I was warm and had a roof over my head, but then you threw me back out on the streets, with no place to go, not even a stable. When I was injured, I found you had closed the local accident and emergency unit, so I had to walk five miles to the nearest hospital. I couldn’t make it, and had no money to call an ambulance, so I died of pneumonia on the way. 

They also asked when they had met the King as a thirsty or starving man, or as an immigrant, or as a destitute and injured man, and he answered:

Now I will speak truth to power: You are supposed to be ministers of the state and church, but whenever you failed to minister to the people who gave you power over them, you failed to minister to me.

So the chief minister recalled their Assembly, and they returned to their palace, where they debated how to arrest the King, put him on trial, and execute him without causing a revolution among the growing number of poor their policies had created. They would have to wait until after Christmas was over, so they agreed to meet again in the New Year, and went home to their own mansions for the holiday, determined to ignore the poor in their constituencies.”

English: People eating at a soup kitchen. Mont...

English: People eating at a soup kitchen. Montreal, Canada Français : Personnes mangeant dans une soupe populaire. Montréal, Canada. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shovuos (Pentecost – Jewish Festival)   2 comments

Even unto the morrow after the seventh Sabbath shall ye number fifty days. (Leviticus 23: 16) Judaism‘s  festival of weeks comes seven weeks, or fifty days (‘Pentecost’) after the Passover Festival. This festival was originally celebrated as the gathering of the barley harvest, seven weeks after the harvesting of the wheat crop. It was, therefore, the a thanksgiving festival and was first observed after the Hebrews had settled in Palestine as a farming community. It gained greater importance as the festival of ‘the Torah’, the Hebrew Law given by God on Mount Sinai to Moses. According to the Bible story, the Hebrews entered the Sinai desert in the third month of their exodus from Egypt. Much later, in the nineteenth century, the festival acquired even greater significance when it was recognised as the day of confirmation, on which thirteen year-olds were confirmed in the faith through a special ceremony. Previously, only boys were allowed to go through this ‘Bar Mitzvah’, but now both boys and girls are confirmed at this age. The festival also has a Christian significance, for it was at Pentecost that Jesus’ disciples suddenly found the courage to go out and tell the whole world about their belief, so that the festival became ‘Whitsun’ in the Christian calendar, a popular day for baptisms and confirmations, with the weekend popular for white weddings!  I was baptised on Whit Sunday, forty years ago, fifteen years after being born at a Nottinghamshire Baptist manse on a Whit Monday! Shovuos is a summer festival and Jewish homes are decorated in green, while the food is largely composed of dairy dishes. A popular dish is ‘blintzes’, which is cheese rolled in dough. In Jewish schools children are taught the story of Ruth, which reminds them of their agricultural heritage and also turns their thoughts to David and Bethlehem, his home town. The story begins in a time of hardship and famine, when a farmer named Elimelech, together with his wife, Naomi, and their two sons, decided to move to another country, Moab, to find better pastures there. Sadly, Emilelech died, leaving the two boys to look after their mother. In time, the boys married, the elder to a Moabite woman, Ruth. Naomi found happiness with her two daughters-in-law and her sons, and they prospered for a decade. Then, tragically, the two sons were killed in an accident and Naomi, now very lonely, decided to return to Bethlehem. Ruth asked to go with her, with the words:

Cover of
Cover of The Story of Ruth

Wherever you go, I will go, Wherever you live, I will live. Your people shall be my people and your God, my God. (Ruth 1:16)

English: House of the People is a multi-purpos...
English: House of the People is a multi-purpose hall. Here, Bar Mitzvah boy called to the Torah עברית: בית העם הוא אולם רב תכליתי. כאן, נער בר מצוה עולה לתורה. באולם קיימת הפרדה בין הגברים לנשים., Original Image Name:בר מצוה בבית העם, Location:בית העם במושב צופית (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They went back to Bethlehem together, to find the situation very different to how it had been a decade previously. The famine was over and the harvests were good. However, the two women remained poor and at the barley harvest time Ruth went into the fields to ‘glean’ among the sheaves left by the reapers. The owner, Boaz, saw her, fell in love with her, and gave her six measures of barley to take home to her mother-in-law. They were married and their son, Obed, was Jesse’s father, who was father to David, hence the significance of the story to Christians, since Jesus was David’s descendant, born in his home town of Bethlehem. However, although the Christian festival of Whitsun is a popular time for baptisms and confirmations, like ‘Bar Mitzvah’ celebrations, the basis of the festival is the New Testament story of what happened to the apostles on the morning after the seventh sabbath.

Mazel tov hats at a bat mitzvah
Mazel tov hats at a bat mitzvah (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The ‘Bar Mitzvah’ (boys) and ‘Bat Mitzvah‘ (girls) ceremonies mark the occasion when the young Jew reaches religious and legal maturity. There are celebrations both in the synagogue and at home. The young boy is taught to read the Torah scroll, and a great extended family party follows. The young person gives a speech in which s/he expresses their thanks to their parents for all their love and concern in bringing them up.

Sixth Day of Christmas: 30th December: The Refugees’ Return from Gaza   1 comment

Matthew 2 vv19-23 (Good News):

‘After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go back to the land of Israel, because those who tried to kill the child are dead.” So Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went back to Israel.

‘But when Joseph heard that Archelaus had succeeded his father Herod as king of Judea, he was afraid to go there. He was given more instructions in a dream, so he went to the province of Galilee and made his home in a town named Nazareth. And so what the prophet had said came true: “He will be called a Nazarene” ‘

English: Herod Archelaus was the ethnarch of S...
English: Herod Archelaus was the ethnarch of Samaria, Judea, and Edom from 4 BC to 6 AD. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As an historian, I find this piece both fascinating and puzzling, because it underlines the differences between the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke’s gospels. Up until the end of Matthew’s account, the accounts can interlace. However, Luke ends his account with the passage above, whereas Luke concludes with Jesus’ naming and presentation in Jerusalem, which he dates, according to ‘the Law of Moses’ as a week after the child’s birth and the visit of the shepherds. Also, this is the first mention Matthew makes of Nazareth. All his ‘reports’ come from Bethlehem, and here he feels the need to explain why the family settled in Nazareth and not in Bethlehem. Of course, he doesn’t say they were a Judean family either, but whereas Luke makes clear the reason they were ‘only visiting’ Bethlehem at the time of the birth, Matthew seems to suggest that they had to settle in Galilee because Judea was far too dangerous, despite the death of ‘Herod the Great‘. This also seems to suggest that, at the very least, Joseph had strong family ties to Bethlehem, which would have made an ‘undercover’ return to Judea possible. Indeed, the fact that Matthew does not refer to the birth taking place in the ’emergency accommodation’ of Luke’s ‘manger’ suggests that they had a family home in ‘the little town’ where they could stay, and that perhaps they had been on their way there when the baby arrived ‘prematurely’.

This view finds support from the apocryphal Gospel of James, which focuses in detail on the birth narratives, recording the birth as taking place in a cave used for keeping livestock, by the road to Bethlehem. For me, that makes the story even more human, having been through the ‘will we make it to the hospital before baby arrives’ scenario, like many other ‘expectant’ fathers!

English: This is a map of first century Iudaea...
English: This is a map of first century Iudaea Province that I created using Illustrator CS2. I traced this image for the general geographic features. I then manually input data from maps found in a couple of sources. Robert W. Funk and the Jesus Seminar. The Acts of Jesus. HarperSanFrancisco: 1998. p. xxiv. Michael Grant. Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels. Charles Scribner’s Sons: 1977. p. 65-67. John P. Meier. A Marginal Jew. Doubleday: 1991. p. 1:434. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, the more important difference, since the basis of the Christian faith is the historical Jesus, the incarnation in Earth’s space and time, is that, for the flight to Egypt, Herod’s death, the return and the presentation in the Temple to have all taken place within a week, would have been meant an action-packed week for a young mother and child, even if they had not gone much further along the road to Egypt than Gaza, as first century Palestinian refugees. Certainly, right up until the time of his death, which has been accurately dated to the end of March/ beginning of April 4 B.C., Herod was committing terrible atrocities on his own people. The following comes from the biblical scholar, Daniel B Wallace from www.bible.org, on the record of these provided by the Jewish historian:

‘Josephus tells us much about Herod. The best word to describe his reign is ‘overkill.’ He murdered his favourite wife’s father, drowned her brother–and even killed her! He executed one of his most trusted friends, his barber, and 300 military leaders–all in a day’s work! Then he slew three of his sons, allegedly suspecting them of treason. Josephus tells us that “Herod inflicted such outrages upon (the Jews) as not even a beast could have done if it possessed the power to rule over men” (Antiquities of the Jews 17:310). Killing babies was not out of character for this cruel king. And killing them up to two years old–to make sure he got the baby Jesus lines up with his insane jealousy for power.

‘Josephus might have omitted the slaying of the babies for one of two reasons: first, he was no friend of Christianity and he left it out intentionally; or second, just before Herod died he locked up 3000 of the nation’s leading citizens and gave orders that they were to be executed at the hour of his death. He wanted to make sure that there would be mourning when he died. . . Israel was so preoccupied with this that the clandestine murder of a few babies might have gone unnoticed. . .’

Watching again the scenes from North Korea at this time of year, three years ago, it was easy to see how, even in a world of mass and instantaneous communication, how it’s possible for dictators to hide the real truth of their tyranny behind a thin veneer of carefully choreographed, if seemingly spontaneous, devotion to a leader. When Jesus was born in the late winter or early spring of 4 B.C. he came into a country, Judea, which was a state living under terror, likely to continue under Herod’s successor. So, he became a refugee on the road through Gaza to Egypt, and grew up ‘in exile’ from his father’s ancestral home, in northern Palestine, or the kingdom of Israel, outside the jurisdiction of Archalaus, Herod’s son. There’s both a contemporary and timeless message in all that history somewhere, isn’t there? That’s what makes Christianity so unique as a faith. Emmanuel. God with us in every human experience.

Fourth Day of Christmas: Holy Innocents: The Killing of the Children and the Escape to Egypt   2 comments

Massacre of the Innocents (1565-7), Royal Coll...

Massacre of the Innocents (1565-7), Royal Collection, London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fourth Day of Christmas: Holy Innocents: The Killing of the Children and the Escape to Egypt

by Andrew Chandler on Friday 28 December 2012 at 08:23

The fourth day of Christmas, 28th, belongs to the Holy Innocents, recalling the fury of Herod when he learned that the wise men had found the child they looked for, but not returned to his court to report the find, choosing to return to their own country by another road, ‘since God had warned them in a dream not to go back to Herod’ (Matthew 2 v 12). The gospel-writer continues (vv 13-18, ‘Good News for Modern Man’):

The Escape to Egypt

‘After they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph and sais “Herod will be looking for the child in

order to kill him. So get up, take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you to leave.”

‘Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and left during the night for Egypt, where he stayed until Herod died. This was done to make come true what the Lord had said through the prophet, “I called my son out of Egypt.” ‘

The Killing of the Children

‘When Herod realised that the visitors from the East had tricked him, he was furious. He gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its neighbourhood who were two years old and younger – this was done in accordance with what he had learned from the visitors about the time when the star had appeared. In this way what the prophet Jeremiah had said came true:

“A sound is heard in Ramah,

the sound of bitter weeping.

Rachel is crying for her children;

she refuses to be comforted,

for they are dead.”

This story evokes memories of the Jewish captivity in Egypt when, fearing that the Jewish population was growing too numerous, the Pharaoh ordered all Jewish boy children to be killed at birth. Moses was saved then through the courage and ingenuity of his sister Miriam, and an angel of the Lord later avenged the deaths of the children, ‘passing over’ the homes of the Hebrews in visiting plague upon the new-born Egyptians, as the story goes.

ceausescu still present in our public space
Ceausescu still present in our public space (Photo credit: energeticspell)

1989: The Fall of Romania’s Herod

The story is also a poignant and timely reminder of the evils of dictatorship. It was at this Christmas time, twenty-five years ago, in 1989, that the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu fell in Bucharest in the last of a series of revolutions which swept across Central-Eastern Europe in 1989. I remember the parallels which were dawn at that time between Ceausescu and Herod, though it was only some time later that the full horror of Romania’s orphanages were revealed. The revolution had begun in Transylvania, in the Hungarian-minority and dissident city of Timisoara, or Temesvár, where the secret police had opened fire on protesters who had gathered in support of the outspoken Reformed Church ‘pasztor’, Laszló Tökes.

On 22 December, Ceausescu staged a ‘demonstration of support’ in Bucharest which was infiltrated by dissidents who began cat-calling, booing and whistling. They were joined by those more forcibly assembled, and Ceausescu was forced to break off his speech, retire from the balcony and flee with his hated wife, Elena. They were caught, put on trial by the new military regime which had won a three day battle for control of the capitol, and shot on Christmas Day, their bodies being shown on television. By the end of 1989, the leaders of nearly all the ‘satellite’ Soviet states had been forced to hand over power. Except for Romania, hardly a drop of blood had been spilt. It was an ‘annus mirablis’ in the way that 2011 will be seen, if it isn’t already earning that accolade due to the uncertain outcome of violent events in Syria and elsewhere.

Since the time of King Saul, God had warned the Hebrews of the consequences of choosing Kings to rule over them, and ignoring the prophets. The story of the Massacre of the Innocents and the Escape to Egypt, with Jesus becoming a refugee almost at birth, is a reminder of the costs of upholding dictatorship which are almost always visited on innocent generations to come. Pharaohs, Caesars and Herods will continue to come to power, unless challenged. Jesus himself epitomised this by ‘speaking truth to power’ to both Pilate and Herod, confrontations which led to his own bloody sacrifice for our freedom from tyrrany.

The ‘Coventry Carol‘ was performed as part of the pageant of the Guild of ‘Shearmen’ and Tailors on the 28th December, Holy Innocents’ Day, outside the Medieval Cathedral, the ruins of which themselves later became a symbol of resistance to dictatorship and commitment to reconciliation, linking the city to cities throughout the world, including Kecskemét in Hungary, where I live now. The dramatic contrast between Mary’s peaceful lullaby and Herod’s raging must have served as a warning to the city’s citizens about the ever-present proximity of violence and tyranny, at a time when Yorkist and Lancastrian Kings were warring with each other outside the city’s gate. We know that the Mystery Plays were watched in 1484 and 1492 respectively by both Richard III, whom Shakespeare later portrayed as a hunch-backed tyrant, murdering the innocent young princes in the Tower of London, and Henry VII, who had deposed Richard at nearby Bosworth Field, and was struggling to establish his Tudor dynasty with a combination of terror and guile. One wonders what was going through their minds as they watched the portrayal of ‘Herod’s Raging’ and the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’:

‘Charged he hath this day,

His men of might,

In his own sight,

All young children to slay.

‘That woe is me,

Poor child for thee!

And ever morn and day,

For thy parting,

Neither say nor sing,

By by, lully lullay!’

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