A Sleeping Child

Herod heard of the Christ child, and he and all of his advisors were troubled. He instructed the wise men to find the boy, and to bring him back the news, so that he too might go and pay him homage. The homage that Herod meant to pay the child was to put him to death. When the wise men, warned by a dream, stayed far away from Jerusalem on their way back east, Herod did what Herod had been wont to do. He eliminated the opposition – or he tried to.

The baby boys in the vicinity of Bethlehem were things for Herod, obstacles to his dynastic plans. If a tree is in the way of your road, you cut it down and root out its stump. For you it has no life. It is just a blank negation of your will.

All of the paintings of this slaughter that I’ve ever seen are of dramatic and terrible action. Brutal over-muscled soldiers swing their swords, sometimes piercing mother and child together. What I’ve never seen, though, is a painting that might better correspond to our situation now.

I imagine it this way. The room is dim and still. Neither father nor mother is there. Perhaps they are in the fields, at work. Light from one window shines upon the countenance of a man, a soldier. His brow is knitted. He holds a sword at his side. He is not moving. On a bed before him sleeps a little boy.

I ask you to imagine that small boy. Gabriel Marcel says that the sight of any sleeping person brings us into the vicinity of a mystery: the feeling of a presence that cannot be reduced to propositions or to utility. This is especially true of the sleeping child: “From the point of view of physical activity. . .the sleeping child is completely unprotected and appears to be utterly in our power; from that point of view, it is permissible for us to do what we like with the child. But from the point of view of mystery, we might say that it is just because this being is completely unprotected, that it is utterly at our mercy, that it is also invulnerable or sacred.” (from The Mystery of Being: “Presence as a Mystery”)

We see the careless curl of hair at his temple. We see the shut eyes – what do they behold? We see the pursed lips, the slow rhythm of his breath.

No one, to the extent that he remains safely within the warehouse of things, feels this presence. We do not sense a mystery in transistor 2451, shelf 32B. Once we replace a name with a number, most of our destructive work is done. If we see only instruments, we will not scruple to use them as we please. The important feature of a part of a machine is that it has no individuality. It can be replaced with another. It is meant to be replaceable with another.

But if that soldier stops too long to behold the small boy asleep, he will have to harden himself against the natural and human sense of holiness and mystery. To treat the boy as a thing, he must himself become a thing, a tool of Herod, a part of the Herodian machine.

Slaughter of the Innocents by François-Joseph Navez (1824)
Slaughter of the Innocents by François-Joseph Navez (1824)

To treat the sleeping child as an annoyance to be rid of, he must acknowledge the worthlessness of all small things; the seed in the earth, the chick in its nest, the beat of a heart, the soldier in an army, Judea in the Roman Empire, that little empire in the long sweep of the history of the world, that world a speck of dust in the heavens. He must deny the worth of created being itself.

Imagine another picture of a sleeping child. He is sucking his thumb. He is curled up, knees tucked under his chin. His bottom is plainly and innocently visible. The picture is blurry, because he is swaddled up in the warm flesh of his mother’s womb. The nurse at the clinic sees and does not see the little boy.

Imagine another picture. The boy is lively and half wild. A shock of hair falls over his forehead. He has been swimming in the pond. He comes out streaming with water and laughing. The older “friend” looks on, calculating, strategizing.

Another picture. The boys and girls sit at their desks in the classroom. They are thinking about all kinds of things. One of the boys is thinking about the ballgame he is going to play that evening. One of the girls is thinking about paying a visit to her cousin on the way home from school. Two other girls are talking about where they go to learn how to ride horses. Another boy is daydreaming, gazing out the window.

The teacher stands in front of them. Her brow is knitted. She frowns. She is holding a book at her side. By the time the boys and girls leave school that afternoon, they will know about – fill in the blank.

“Is something wrong, son?” The boy hasn’t been himself this evening. He gives her an odd look, then ducks away.
 “No, it’s nothing.”

Says Marcel: “There can be no doubt at all that the strongest and most irrefutable mark of sheer barbarism that we could imagine would consist in the refusal to recognize this mysterious invulnerability.


Herod and Herodias come in many guises. They are hedonists, for whom children are but an irritating check against their pursuit of pleasure. They are utilitarians, tools who evaluate the usefulness of other tools. They are statists, whose ambition is not to govern men, but to manage ants. They are doctors and nurses who will not see the child. They are all the murderers of innocence. They stand like the soldier in the doorway of the home.

Sweet Jesus, save us from ourselves.

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.