In the church where I grew up, the first Sunday in Advent was dubbed the “hanging of the greens.” On that special Sunday, we sang carols in the decorated sanctuary, all culminating in the children’s live nativity scene. The service never changed from year to year. The only variables were how many kids needed roles and which young child would get stage fright, thus leaving part of the the story without visual representation.
It always seemed like the doves were cursed. The doves rarely remained on stage for the entire performance. Over the years, I was a variety of animals — a wise man, a shepherd, and finally Joseph. I never got stage fright. I was never a dove. I can only imagine what my mother would’ve done if I had been that kid.
It took me years to realize that there was a character missing from my congregation’s telling of the story. We always left out King Herod.
This was a huge oversight, because Herod plays a major role in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth.
Indeed, much of the story’s meaning depends on the response of King Herod to the news he receives from the Magi. This interaction gives us a glimpse of the practical consequences that follow God entering the world in the form of the baby. Herod’s reaction helps us understand the incarnation. Herod is a key figure and we can’t leave him out of the Christmas Story. To borrow a phrase from the Vice President, Herod helps us understand that the birth of Jesus is a big freaking deal.
The Magi show up on Herod’s doorstep. They come from the East, which is to say they’re not from Israel. They’re pilgrims — religious tourists, if you will. They’ve seen a star and decided to follow it. The outsiders have noticed the sign from a far that Herod has missed in his own backyard. If Herod were a politician, Matthew would say that he was a little out-of-touch. He’s gone Washington, as they say.
So, the Magi show up and they expect Herod to know all the details about this star and its meaning. After all, he’s in charge. He’s the guy who’s supposed to know what’s going on. They ask Herod to help them find the King of the Jews.
This shocks Herod. After all, he is the King of the Jews. But the Magi don’t seem to be looking for him. His authority is being questioned.
Awakened to this challenge, Herod consults his closest advisors and then reacts with the calmness of a leader anticipating conflict — which is to say his response isn’t calm at all. He plots and schemes and eventually orders a mass execution.
This is decidely not the Christmas Story I heard growing up.
I’m always fascinated by the accoutn of Herod’s reaction. The NIV describes Herod as “disturbed” and then notes that so was all of Jerusalem. The NRSV translates this word as “frightened.”
Here in D.C., when the rumor mill starts churning, the phrase you often here is “all of Washington’s talking about it” or “Washington’s abuzz.” This is clearly not true. There are thousands of people in D.C., who haven’t spoken a sentence about the fiscal cliff, but we still talk about the city being consumed by that topic. It signifies that the D.C., social scene, and influential types are participating in a common conversation. So was the same with Herod and Jerusalem.
The powers that be in Jerusalem were taken aback by the news brought by the Magi. The powers that be were being challenged. Herod’s legitimacy was being called into question. Herod’s patrons, the ruling class, and everyone who benefitted from the status quo was justifiably consumed with understanding this new thing. Their own power and status depended on Herod remaining the King of the Jews. Herod and everyone in Jerusalem who were invested in the success of Herod’s rule were disturbed. The were frightened by this baby the Magi were seeking.
Matthew tells us that Jesus entered this world to challenge the powerful. The Messiah was not born meek and mild.
Theologians who study this passage believe God is offering Israel, and by extension us, two different visions of our life together, two competing claims for what how best to exist in the world.
Herod was credited with bringing peace to the land — a peace that was established through military conquest. At the risk of being anahronistic, Herod brough an Augustianian peace that represents the absence of violence. This is peace through military victory.
Jesus’ birth offers an alternative vision. It is the announcement of peace through justice. God’s rule is not predicated on military might but on the re-establishing of right relationship and order within Israel. We have been offered a glimpse of the heavenly peace that reveals an eschatalogical reality. At the risk of spoiling the story, Matthew is telling us at the very beginning how this is all going to end.
Of course, for God’s justice to prevail and true peace to actually reign, the powers that have established and maintained the faux peace of military conflict must fall. Conflict is a necessary step towards the realization of God’s peace. This is an ironic story.
For many 21st century American Christians, Christmas is perhaps the most ironic time of the year. We spend weeks performing traditional rituals to celebrate the new way God is interacting with the world. Each year we share the familiar Gospel stories of Jesus’ birth, yet we fail to grasp the meaning behind these accounts. Rather than being challenged and unsettled by this season, we take refuge in the sentimentalized and commercialized version of this holiday offered to us by our culture.
I suspect all of us should be a little bit more uncomfortable than we are during this season. Now, there is much – much – to be reassured by in the Christmas Story. After all, the Word has become flesh and dwelt among us. This IS GOOD news of GREAT joy for ALL people. I’m just trying to suggest the Church needs to explore a little further what this means.
My fear is that many of our assumptions are wrong because they’ve been captured and corrupted by pernicious influences within our culture – they’ve been subversively appropriated by the Herods of today. If the birth of Christ is a proclamation that God’s peace and justice will be victorious, then we need to be more diligent about testing those spirits that purport to bring peace to our lives and our world. Advent exposes the idolatry of militarism, consumerism, individualism, and a host of other –isms that seek to dominate and define our existence.
The preacher and activisit William Sloane Coffin once said that “faith is recognizing that if at Christmas Jesus became more like us, it was so we might become more like him.”
Coffin goes on to add, “We know what this means; watching Jesus heal the sick, empower the poor, and scorn the powerful, we see transparently the power of God at work.”
We must remember that Christmas is a time when we see the power of God at work and can decide how we want to participate in, and witness to, that power.
Herod must be included in our Christmas Story because he reminds us that how this story begins is different than how it ends. But he also reminds us that we are offered a choice. Will we participate with God in manifesting a peace that is realized through justice, or will we perpetuate the violence that creates a temporary peace through the use of force?
As those who proclaim the arrival of God’s peace realized through justice, as witnesses to the power of hope and love, we are called to embody the lessons of this story in our lives and work. In a world marred by violence, Christmas is a time for us to live out this truth we profess. To be followers of Jesus means joining in the Magi's quest for the newborn Messiah, so that we might also worship him and have our lives transformed by the God who rests in a manger.
But we cannot stop there. The story continues. This gift comes with a caution.
It may require the periodic flee to Egypt.
It involves picking up our cross.
But it ends resting in God’s glory.
May God’s peace and justice be with us all.
Beau Underwood is Campaigns Manager for Sojourners and an ordained minister in Washington, D.C.
Nativity Scene Illustration, © / Shutterstock.com