The Christmas Journey by Martin Willitts Jr.

The Christmas Journey

The Massacre of the Innocents by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and his son Pieter Brueghel the Younger, 1565-67. Based on the Dutch Revolt against Spanish rule (the Eighty Years’ War) and Matthew 2:16-18.

During war, innocence is the first to die.
It could be any country enforcing harsh rules,
casting out immigrants, the unwanted,
even this small Flemish town during a severe winter,
snow-obliterating any and all hope,
icicles hanging like daggers, an iced cover pond.

During war, violence marches and hearts drumbeat.
There is a clamp-down, strictness rules.
A mounted soldier guards a bridge with a lance.
No one will enter or exit. A man hides a child,
but solders are everywhere, checking for immigrants.
One soldier urinates on a wall of a sanctuary house.
Another soldier yanks the last surviving child
from a mother and will kill the child while she watches.
Another soldier forces some women into a house,
and they will never be seen again.
A chorus of four mourners wail about injustice,
and their cries are unheard by us.

A lone woman stands grieving over her dead baby
lying on blood spilled snow. Another couple pleas
to take their daughter, not their son, but bribes fail.
A soldier guards a dead baby making certain
no one can gather the body as a part of the purge.
People try to stop a father from attacking a soldier
killing his son. A seated woman grieves for a dead baby
in her lap. Babies are stabbed. These images will be erased
by government censors. In war and time, truth vanishes.

One soldier has an axe while another has a battering ram,
three are climbing through an open window
while leaders have a meeting. This feels familiar.

Let our lives be a living testimony to who we truly are.

The Census at Bethlehem (also known as The Numbering at Bethlehem), an oil-on-panel by the Flemish Renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1566, based on Luke 2, 1-5.

It could be Bethlehem or Kiev or a southern border
or a Flemish village during winter at sundown.
All stories are really only a handful of stories.

People are gathered to read the warnings
under the Habsburg double-headed eagle.
There are not always warnings.

A man leads a donkey past the notice
indicating immigrants are not welcome.
He knows he needs to keep moving.

A pregnant woman rides on a slow donkey.
She will give birth soon, and on the run
is dangerous for delivering a baby. Can’t stay.

No one notices. The troops are searching.
People are too busy to notice the couple.
An empty barn is the closest shelter.

A man in a small hut rings a bell
to warn about leprosy or smallpox
or influenza or Covid. It doesn’t matter.

The world is going crazy. Troops are nearby.
A woman gives birth in this bitter situation.
Let our lives be a living testimony to who we truly are.

by Martin Willitts Jr.

Martin on Facebook

Editor’s Note: This brilliant ekphrastic poem draws on multiple histories, paintings, and literature in order to remind us that madness is always happening everywhere all at once.


One response to “The Christmas Journey by Martin Willitts Jr.”

  1. Sarah Russell Avatar

    Such powerful testimony.

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