When we think of Christmas the images that often come to mind are usually ones of a happy family gathered around a crackling fire, the children gleefully unwrapping their mountain of presents. Perhaps we see Santa seated in a cosy armchair enjoying a glass of cold milk and a freshly baked – melt in your mouth – mince pie or two. Or maybe we imagine a softly lit nativity scene complete with lowing cattle and a little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay. While these images warm our hearts (and they most certainly should) if they are all we imagine when we think about Christmas they can distract us from the unsanitary nature of original Christmas story. A world of cruelty: of infertility, scandal, tears, and ignobility. But a world which God, nevertheless, steps into in the Person of Jesus the Messiah.
“Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
When the Magi asked King Herod this question it is unlikely they envisioned the horrific events that would follow. I wonder if, as outsiders, they understood the full import of what they were asking. Did they know how loaded their question was and its significance concerning the one to whom they asked it.
It is telling that when faced with this question Herod consults the chief priests and the teachers of the law regarding the birth of the Messiah (Matthew 2:3-4). As the renovator of the Temple in Jerusalem Herod harboured aspirations of being the long awaited Messiah. Moreover, as one who had brokered a pseudo-peace with Rome – allowing the Jewish people to retain their distinctive Jewish identity and a certain degree of national autonomy – Herod probably saw himself as something of a liberator. To his credit Herod played the game well and, as history had previously shown, most other Jewish leaders with Messianic ambitions opted for an openly hostile and aggressive approach towards their pagan oppressors in the pursuit of freedom and peace.
For ‘the king of the Jews’ – installed by Rome and accepted by the Jewish people – to be asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” It is unsurprising that “he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:3 NIV) because the surest way to threaten a would-be Messiah is with the rightful one. Consequently, Herod hatched a plan to find his rival by turning the good intentions of the Magi to further his own ends and secure his own dynasty. He sent the Magi on their way to Bethlehem saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him” (Matthew 2:8 NIV).
Eventually enough time elapsed that Herod became convinced he had been betrayed by the Magi. In his jealous rage Herod perpetrated an unspeakably horrific atrocity: “he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under” (Matthew 2:16 NIV). So great was his need to remain the uncontested Messianic King that he sacrificed the lives of countless innocents.
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”
It is impossible to imagine the unqualified horror experienced by those in Bethlehem. This was not how a king was supposed to act. The Messiah was to bring righteousness and justice, not infanticide. Herod was no true king; he was a false Messiah.
“In the place of judgment—wickedness was there,
in the place of justice—wickedness was there.”
“I saw the tears of the oppressed—
and they have no comforter;
power was on the side of their oppressors—
and they have no comforter.”
Before Herod had a chance to enact his heinous plan, Joseph was warned in a dream to flee to Egypt with Mary and Jesus. Herod was denied his prize; the trueborn king and Messiah yet lived (Matthew 2:13-15).
History may be linear but cruelty is cyclical. We remain plagued by the same evils that have afflicted every generation of humanity because of our two greatest enemies. The two great enemies of humanity, one from without and one from within, are Satan and ourselves. Both have proved insurmountable to us in spite of our very best efforts. We are too weak to defeat our own natures and we are easily dominated by someone stronger than us.
We live in an immeasurably cruel world. But that is only half of the story because history has been irrevocably altered and is heading towards an end where every painful, cruel thing will be undone, where “everything sad is going to come untrue” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King).