When it comes to celebrating Christmas, highlighting the ironies of the nativity has proven to be a reliable tradition. For instance, we point out that Jesus was “born to die,” that the Virgin Mary gave birth to a king not in a palace but in a stable, that shepherds were the first to be apprised of the Messiah’s arrival.
We tend to appropriate the narrative with an emphasis upon specific elements that properly inspire renewed wonder at the occasion. There is an important anomaly in the Christmas story that we tend to neglect, however. It appears in the second chapter of Matthew’s gospel.
The Devious King of Judea
After the apostle regales us with the series of increasingly fantastical events leading up to and concerning Christ’s birth, the account takes a decidedly ominous turn at the appearance of Herod. Long after Mary and Joseph left the stable in Bethlehem, the Magi, having been divinely guided from some far-off eastern empire, arrived in Jerusalem seeking the “king of the Jews.”
Hearing this, Herod, the appointed governor and – for all intents and purposes – king of Judea, concocted his own plan to find this recently born, alleged king so that he, too, as he claimed, could worship him. The prospect of another king presented a threat to Herod’s sovereignty; his motives were deviously ulterior.
After realizing that the Magi disregarded his directive to inform him of the Christ child’s whereabouts, Herod exerted the full ambit of his authority, commissioning the Massacre of the Innocents foretold by the prophet Jeremiah. This operation appalls us even now, despite our consideration of human brutality across the two millennia that have since passed.
According to verse sixteen, “he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.” Fortunately, Mary and Joseph fled the country and lived as refugees in Egypt for a number of years, thus preserving their child’s life.
An Impassioned Response
Herod is similar to both the shepherds and the Magi in that he understood that an event of such magnitude – even if he did not fully grasp the significance of it – demanded action. Immediately upon hearing the news of Christ’s birth, he acted: first by consulting advisers versed in Jewish history and law to confirm the Magi’s report, and then by taking the aforementioned steps to enact his plan.
Herod acted with a resolve and a fervor that supplanted whatever bureaucratic responsibilities had previously engaged his attention. Just as the shepherds left their posts and the Magi left their homeland to worship this new king, Herod redirected his administration to ensure, with paranoid and savage zeal, that no one else would usurp the allegiance he felt he was due.
Herod, in essence, was one of the earliest individuals to recognize a truth that Christ himself would later espouse: “no one can serve two masters” – either Herod or the child would have to go.
Just as we revere the Magi for their unrelenting devotion and uninhibited abandonment of the familiar, so too must we acknowledge Herod’s response to the news of Christ’s birth, as his devotion to finding the Savior was no less impassioned than theirs. Understanding the culmination of Christ’s ministry or recognizing the absence of comfort and status at his birth are hardly meaningful if we do not recognize that truth which Herod acknowledged: that this child’s birth was capable of upending the normal world entirely.
The Consequence of Christ’s Birth
Our traditional display of the nativity scene strives to encapsulate that same aura or mood presumed by many of our most enduring carols: the arrangement is quaint, endowed with a simplicity that songs like “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night” evoke. Despite this idyllic representation, the nativity should also remind us that Christ, even as an infant, was no passive figure.
Via the diametrically conflicting responses of Herod and the Magi, we witness the real consequence of his birth. For some, as was the case with the Magi, he inspires worship, the act of renouncing or diverting one’s attention, thoughts, or allegiance away from oneself; for others, like Herod, he provokes only fear and self-interest.
Given Isaiah’s proclamation – Christ as the “Prince of Peace” – and the angels’ bestowal of peace on earth with their announcement of his birth, Herod’s decree and the ensuing bloodshed might strike us as a jarring and bothersome excerpt within the Christmas story. Then again, about thirty years later, amid ongoing contentions with the various religious sects that would eventually oversee his crucifixion, Christ himself warned his disciples, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
Christ did not come to proactively arouse dissension and division; rather, it is when people respond in fear and self-interest that such things inevitably result. That the actions of Herod, of all people, elucidates the ultimate truth of Christmas is an anomaly worth considering.
It reminds us that Christ only elicits two possible responses: that of the Magi – adoration, self-denial, worship – or that of Herod.