Part of the Christmas story we often gloss over, the story of Herod the Great’s butchery of children doesn’t sit well with our sanitised Nativities, much less our seasonal good cheer and feasting.
This is not something the kids will portray in church or school Nativity plays. It isn’t cute. It isn’t heartwarming. It isn’t even nice. It’s horrible.
With my personal focus this year on the hidden, inverse nature of the Good Story, though, it seems a timely reminder of what sometimes happens when human ideas of greatness meet God’s.
The Magi’s well-meaning attempt to find the One whose birth the star heralded in Herod’s court was the point of contact between the visible, public realm of the rich and powerful and the hidden, silent space of that which truly matters most. When the focus of the world was on the movers and shakers of the Empire and Judea – Caesar Augustus, Governor Quirinius, Herod the Great – on palaces like the Herodion, Jesus is born to a poor family at the bottom of the social ladder, in a backwater town in a conquered province.
Even the Magi got this part wrong. They were phenomenally well-informed otherwise, especially considering that they were almost certainly pagans – the term “Magi” referred to the astrologer-priests of the dualistic Persian Zoroastrian religion. They saw the star, realised it portended a King of the Jews who was so important in the Divine order that the proper response to His appearing was to worship Him, journeyed to Judea bringing gifts of prophetic significance, and then did the logical thing of going to the place you’d expect to find a King.
Herod the Great has come down to most of us as an evil sadist with a cruel and vindictive nature, largely because of his response to the Magi and their search, and yet history bestowed “the Great” on him. In human terms, he was. A builder of fabulous monuments, it was he who squared off the Temple Mount into its present walled shape, he who built the Herodion palace in the desert and raised up the mountain on which it sits, he who fortified Masada. A king ruling over a conquered province doesn’t get called “the Great” for no reason. In terms of the rulers of the day, he wasn’t even especially cruel. Ruthless, yes, but that is common to almost everyone who has ever risen to wield power.
And yet what we remember him for is the terrible crime of butchering children in order to try and secure his own throne.
In the liturgical calendar, the 28th of December is the commemoration of this terrible event. The feast of the Holy Innocents shows what happens when might meets right; in that it foreshadows the crucifixion and echoes Pharaoh’s slaughter of the Hebrew boys.
As part of the story of what we consider the most joyous and festive time of the year, it strikes a discordant note. Attila the Hun following hard on the heels of Saint Nicholas. Gift-giving-and-massacre.
It makes a sort of sense, though, when you consider that the Christmas Story is really an invasion.
Like the D-Day paratroopers, Jesus drops into a world behind enemy lines, the embodiment of God’s rescue plan to free the world from Satanic oppression. “O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free/Thine own from Satan’s tyranny”. The point of the spear. The vanguard of Heaven’s liberating invasion. And of course, the devil makes his counterattack, with all the violence, pride and ruthlessness that is in him. Human kings ruling without reference to any Divinely-imposed limitations form the phalanx of the true oppressor, the self-aggrandising Herod does what any contemporary regime would have considered the proper thing to safeguard his throne and perpetuate his regime.
“Holy” Innocents might seem to be overstating the case, however. With the best will in the world, it’s difficult to attribute any real sense of true holiness to these nameless ones who were the bloody collateral damage of Herod’s ruthless moves against a threat to his power. Innocents, yes, but holy? Maybe a stretch.
Perhaps it’s not as out-of-line as all that, though.
I mentioned earlier that this was an example of what happens when might meets right, when naked power comes up against the holiness of Christ. A foreshadowing of the crucifixion, I said; another time when the might of human empires came down hard on the representatives of righteousness.
As those who are supposed to be the representatives of righteousness today, it’s uncomfortable reading. No-one wants to get squashed underfoot or horribly killed.
But if we’re to be true representatives of Christ, we have to continue to bear witness to the truth no matter what the enemy does. Sometimes we might even get killed. They killed the One we call Lord, after all.
This is what it means to be a martyr. The word literally means “a witness”; someone whose life bears witness to truth and righteousness no matter what the humanly-powerful are doing. We don’t take up the sword of might, we cling to the right no matter what.
In a sense, then, even these poor innocents caught in the crossfire are martyrs. Witnesses of what human greatness does to Divine greatness. Witnesses of the terrible consequences of a power-craving ruler faced with God’s unspoken Mene, Mene, Tekel, Uparsin scribed over their reign.
Though it’s Matthew’s Nativity account that shows this event, it’s neither his, nor Luke’s, nor even John’s account from his Gospel that makes sense of it. No, for that you have to look at the Nativity account of the book of Revelation.
The scary, symbolic account of a woman giving birth to a son who will rule the nations, while a dragon waits to devour the child as soon as he is born. Of war in heaven, of the dragon attacking the rest of the woman’s offspring: Jesus’ fellow-sons of the Father.
A Christmas story it’s almost impossible to cutesify, which you’ll never see in a Nativity play, but a Christmas story nonetheless. Might meets right, the right triumphing not by meeting force with force, but by refusing to give up the right. Continuing to love even in the face of hate. Continuing to do what’s right when it would be so much easier to take up the enemy’s weapons.
A bloody Christmas story, yes, but one worth looking at every so often. Christmas is a lot more serious than we sometimes make it.