Saturday, December 28, 2013

Reflections on Matthew 2 - Christmas I

Read all of Matthew 2 here: Matthew 2
"The Slaughter of the Innocents" by the peasants of the Solentiname Community in Nicaragua - 
c. 1980's - A companion to Ernesto Cardinal's "The Gospel in Solentiname"
Herod the King
One of the great joys of Christmas is to hear the story and to be reacquainted with the many characters which have become beloved over the centuries – Mary, Joseph, Gabriel the Archangel, the heavenly host of angels, the shepherds and the Magi (Wise Men / Kings).  Even the animals that have become associated with the story have a place in our hearts.  But there is one important character in the story who is almost always ignored and this is King Herod the Great.  As the story of the birth is told in the Gospel of Matthew Herod is a central character and is the principal mover in chapter 2. 
Chapter 2 of the Gospel of Matthew begins after the birth of Jesus, which is reported in the very last verse of chapter 1.  And then we have the story of the Magi from the east who have come seeking the future King of the Jews.  They get lost or confused and end up at the palace of Herod in Jerusalem – after all where else to find a new prince but at the palace.  It becomes immediately clear to them that they have made a terrible mistake.  The new baby kind is not there and Herod is suspicious.  The Magi are dismissed but ordered to return to the palace to bring information about the new “King.”  The Magi by this time have realized that stopping at the palace was a major and possibly fatal mistake.  They eventually find the star and then the baby Jesus, but then slip away secretly and get out of the country without notifying Herod.  In the meantime, Joseph is warned in a dream about the impending danger to the baby and he scoops up Mary and the baby and slips out of Judea and into Egypt.  Just in time, as Herod sends his security forces into Bethlehem to eliminate any possible threat to his rule.  And to make sure they manage to get the right child he just orders that all male children two and under be murdered.  It is a brutal end to the Christmas story.
But this act of brutality and terror was not behavior that was foreign to Herod the Great.  He had come into power by a combination of bloodshed and flattery.  He was a particularly good orator and had managed to impress the young Caesar Augustus when Herod had gone to meet him and do penance after having backed Mark Anthony and Cleopatra in the uprising that eventually had claimed both of these leaders.  Herod was also a brilliant architect.  Had he not gone into politics he might be remembered today as one of the greatest architects of antiquity.  He built great palaces, he rebuilt the temple, he built the port city of Caesarea from scratch and he built the incredible fortress Masada (by converting a mountain into an impenetrable palace).
But Herod was brutal and not afraid to murder if it would benefit him.  He had murdered or executed all of his rivals for the throne at the beginning of his reign and continued to deal with any dissention with a bloody iron fist.  Even his own family was not safe.  He had two of his own sons executed a few years before his death.  He also executed his wife and the queen Mariame I (who is said to have loathed her husband).  As he lay suffering on his death bed he became so obsessed with the possibility that at his death no one would mourn that he had a group of important and well respected citizens arrested and gave the order that at his death they should all be murdered so that there would be mourning.  Luckily for them once Herod was dead this order was not carried out.  Augustus Caesar, who was a man who was also perfectly capable to using violence when it suited him, is nevertheless reported as having been appalled and repelled by the scope of Herod’s brutality and cruelty.  He is quoted as having once joked that it would be better to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.
And so on this 1st weekend after Christmas we look at both Jesus and Herod – Herod representing the values and ways of the world and Jesus showing us God’s response.  The writer Tommy Hinson comments about this comparison in this way:
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 like Herod 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 halls 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.
Herod the Great
The quotes above are from a Sojourner's Magazine by Tommy Hinson - "Our War on Christmas"

No comments:

Post a Comment