LET’S KEEP HEROD IN CHRISTMAS
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
January 4, 2015; 2nd Sunday of Christmas, Year B
Psalm 2; Matthew 2:13-23

“Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph
in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother,
and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you;
for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’”
Matthew 2:13

“Let’s keep Christ in Christmas!” It’s a popular slogan, found on many a bumper-sticker, and even a few billboards. “Yes, let’s enjoy the shopping, the gift-giving, the office parties; Santa, Frosty the Snowman and all the rest. Yet, as we do, let’s never forget the true ‘Reason for the Season’: the birth of Jesus Christ.”

Who could argue with that? I certainly can’t.

Do you really think, though, there’s a danger of losing Jesus amidst the wrapping-paper and the wreaths? I don’t think so. Sure, we’ve just witnessed a huge, commercial holiday pass us by that has little to do with the babe in the manger. But I think his place there is pretty secure.

All over the country, the children of churches like ours have put on Christmas pageants that tell the story of the Nativity. The cast of characters may vary, but always there are three individuals at the heart of the story: Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. Angels and shepherds come and go, in various numbers. Wise men may show up bearing gifts — or, they may hold off until Epiphany. There may be an assortment of barnyard animals, either real or portrayed by kids in costume. There may even be an innkeeper to say “Sorry, no vacancy!” and slam the door.

Yet, there’s one figure from the biblical narrative you’ll rarely see portrayed in a children’s Christmas pageant: King Herod. He’s just too mean and nasty for that holy night.

On Christmas Eve, we always read the story, from Matthew, about how the wise men first came to the court of King Herod, asking him where they can find the child born King of the Jews. Herod, of course, was the real, live King of the Jews, but he was too crafty a politician to show his hand too soon. There was intelligence to be gathered — and if these naive foreigners could be enlisted as spies to lead him to this King of the Jews, so much the better.

The visitors from the east are a little too wise for that. They return to their own country by another way. And that’s where our Christmas Eve reading from Matthew typically ends.

It’s only Part 1, though, of a two-part story. Nobody ever wants to read the second part on Christmas Eve, because the details are so horrible. Wise men dropping off baby presents is one thing. What comes next is rated “R” for intense violence. Not the sort of thing we want little kids to hear, before heading back home to leave milk and cookies for Santa. Visions of sugarplums could be replaced by bloody nightmares.

Herod is enraged to learn the magi have given him the slip. And so he sends his soldiers out to commit an atrocity worthy of Hitler’s S.S. They are to break into every Jewish home in the region around Bethlehem, pull every male baby from the arms of their mothers and cut their little throats.

Herod — at this point a bitter old man, in the final year of his 41-year reign — was fully capable of such atrocities. Let me tell you a little about him.

He was king in name only, everyone knew that. It was the Romans who really called the shots. Herod’s job was to do the dirty work, subduing a rebellious colony on behalf of the Emperor — a task he performed with relish.

During the course of his reign, Herod had at least nine wives and 14 children we know of — though there were probably more, because the daughter’s births were not always recorded. One of his wives, Mariamne I, he put on trial for adultery. Chief witness for the prosecution was Mariamne’s own mother — who, it is said, testified against her daughter only because she feared for her own life. Herod executed his wife, which led her mother to declare herself Queen, charging that Herod was mentally unfit to rule. Not a good decision, on her part. Herod put her to death without a trial. Talk about a dysfunctional family!

There’s more. There were two young sons remaining from Herod’s marriage to Mariamne. As they grew older, he considered them threats to his power. He sought to put them on trial for treason, but the Emperor Augustus put a stop to that, ordering the sons and the father to reconcile. A few years later, Herod outmaneuvered the Emperor. He sent a huge financial donation to revive the Olympic Games, something Augustus very much wanted. In exchange, the Emperor allowed Herod to execute his two sons, although later he was heard to mutter, “I would rather be Herod’s dog than Herod’s son.”

But that’s still not all. After murdering his wife and his two sons, Herod named his eldest, Antipater — child of a different mother — the exclusive heir to the throne. But Herod never could tolerate a rival. He grew jealous of his latest crown prince. He put him on trial for treason, like the others, and had him executed. The Emperor was so appalled that he refused to allow any of Herod’s remaining sons to have the title of king — although three of them would eventually rule as “tetrarchs,” each of them governing a third of their father’s old kingdom. Thirty-three years later, one of them, Herod Antipas, would look upon Jesus at last, as he stood before him in chains, wearing a crown of thorns.

We don’t know when it was, exactly, that the Magi stopped by to pay their courtesy call, but it was probably during this last, turbulent year of Herod’s life, the year he executed his third son. Now that you know what sort of man the King was, do you have any doubt that he was capable of dispatching soldiers to kill babies?

Jesus, of course, escaped that fate. An angel of the Lord came to Joseph in a dream, warning him to take his little family and flee to Egypt. There they probably settled in the thriving Jewish quarter of Alexandria, a great center of learning. It’s possible Jesus spent his early years there, and learned Talmud from the distinguished rabbis of that city.

I don’t know about you, but is it at all troubling that God sends an angel to rescue Jesus, but lets all those other little babies die? It’s emblematic of the problem we face so often in this world: the problem of evil, the question of why a just and all-powerful God allows human suffering to take place. There’s no easy answer to that philosophical question, but King Herod does seem to fill the role of evil incarnate.

*****

So, what do you think? Should we reserve a role for Herod in next year’s Sunday School Christmas pageant?

Relax. It’s a rhetorical question! I don’t think Herod belongs in a children’s Christmas play. But that doesn’t mean we should forget about him entirely.

Herod’s important to the Christmas story because he helps us remember what kind of world we live in: and why this world still needs a savior. You may have had a fine Christmas — and I sincerely hope you did — but there are plenty of people in this world whose lives are filled with suffering, for whom the least of their worries is whether or not they managed to get into “the Christmas spirit.”

I read the other day that so many millions of refugees have made their way from Syria into Lebanon that they now represent one-quarter of the population. That’s a staggering number! Can you imagine what life in our country would be like if we had to absorb a proportionate number of displaced people? These families are fleeing the dictator Assad’s army on the one hand, and the thugs of ISIS on the other. A significant number of them are Christians, members of some of the oldest churches in the world. They’re wondering if they will ever return to the land of their ancestors — and whether those ancient churches will ever again resound with Christian hymns. What kind of Christmas do you think they had this year?

Closer to home, there are plenty of families still displaced from their homes after Sandy. Millions of Federal dollars are earmarked for recovery grants, but little has been distributed because the application process is so complex, so filled with pitfalls. No one in government seems to be doing very much to cut the red tape and move things along.

The local food pantry is busier than it’s ever been before, a whole generation of young adults — the children of many of us — can’t find decent work in this sluggish economy and our cities are torn up once again by racial tensions we haven’t seen in decades.

Yes, there are lots of people who “had themselves a merry little Christmas,” but a great many more find themselves far removed from the vision of perfection and peace portrayed on so many sparkly Christmas cards.

Jesus didn’t come into the world, my friends, in order to bring us a mid-winter festival of peace and contentment. He wasn’t born into a placid Christmas-card scene, but rather into the sort of world where families wander homeless and corrupt tyrants rule by murder and deceit. Jesus didn’t come to offer respite from the world. He came to save it! And you and I — as his disciples — have a role in carrying out that mission, using the spiritual gifts he’s given us, and whatever resources we have at our disposal.

If you and I strive to keep Herod in Christmas, than maybe it will be a little easier to remember that mission.

In the spirit of realism, we close with some stanzas of a poem by John Betjeman, who was at one time poet laureate of England. It’s the concluding portion of a poem called, simply, “Christmas”:

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare —
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

Copyright © 2015, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.