Every year, a chorus of Christians join together to bemoan the “War on Christmas,” lambasting their enemies for taking Christ out of Christmas, and yearning for the days when everyone remembered the reason for the season.
But have we all forgotten? There has always been a war on Christmas. In fact, conflict lies at the very heart of Christmas. To those who say that Christmas is all about peace on earth, a quick look at the second chapter of Matthew and the largely overlooked story of King Herod reminds us that this peace comes at a price. For it is the kind of peace that can only come through conflict. Before caroling, there was weeping in Ramah.
It didn’t take long for the rest of the world to recognize what Herod already knew. One by one, they all turned against him — his disciples, his family — everyone. And ultimately, they didn’t kill Jesus because he was a great teacher. They didn’t kill him for healing the sick, or caring for the poor, or opposing injustice. They didn’t even kill Jesus for claiming to be the savior. They killed Jesus because he claimed to be the king of the world.
As human beings, we cling to our autonomy. We fear and mistrust those in power, and rightly so, for our history is full of Herods. Nevertheless, most of us don’t seem to remember how we acquired this autonomy, or at what cost.
Recently, news broke of a strange theft in Mexico. Armed gunmen attacked a delivery truck and stole the cargo; however, the thieves later abandoned the goods. Turns out, they had stolen cobalt-60, a highly radioactive substance. The thieves knew it was valuable, but didn’t fully understand it. Only after they took it did they realize it was breaking down their bodies. Authorities estimated they would be dead within three days.
The event Christians call the “fall” was very much the same. We saw something we knew was valuable — autonomy — but we didn’t fully understand it. We stole it anyway, only later to realize that it was breaking the entire world apart.
We staged a coup. We claimed the world for our own. We declared ourselves gods. And the world has never recovered.
Like those irradiated thieves, we cannot undo what we did. Societal injustice, racism, poverty, violence — these are tumors caused by the radiation of our rebellion. Our greatest luminaries, such as the late Nelson Mandela, spend their lives trying to heal our world. They represent the best we’ve got, but even under their care these issues, at best, go into remission.
The Christmas story alone has the power to address the depth of the cancer at the heart of this world. For the only one who can fix the world is the one who made the world: Jesus, the rightful king. But therein lies the conflict facing us all: Christmas is Christ’s claim to the throne. Our throne.
Christmas is not about sentimentality; it is about sovereignty. Our make-believe monarchy is about to come tumbling down. But therein lies the hope, and the peace, that Christmas promises. For the Christmas story is not merely pageant-fodder; it proclaims to the world a vision of the true king.
While a mortal king clamored for power, the infinite-become-infant entered in obscurity. He was born to a frightened teen mother in a backwater town, attended by unclean shepherds and Gentiles, exactly the wrong sorts of people. While Herod ruled through oppression and fear, Jesus served with compassion and love. Both were 33 on the day of their coronation — Herod in the hall of Rome; Jesus on the hill of Golgotha.
Herod took the life of anyone who stood against him; Jesus gave his life for everyone who stands against him, a divine rescue mission. Thus was the price of Christmas peace. He subverts us in order to save us, and we are left to decide, “Will we take up arms against such a king, or will we finally lay our paper crowns down?”
Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her king. One day he’ll make the world anew, and heaven and nature themselves will sing.
A native of North Carolina, Tommy Hinson attended Furman University, where he met his wife and best friend, Laura. Tommy received an M.Div. and an M.A. in counseling from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. He and Laura have two sons, Riley and Maddox, and a dog named Jasper. He is pastor at Church of the Advent in Washington, D.C.