Before the Grinch, before Ebenezer Scrooge, the original and most nefarious villain of the Christmas story was Herod.
We all love the questing magi, the angels erupting into song over sleepy fields, the shepherds shell-shocked but in awe. We marvel at the very young woman whose simple faith – “I am the Lord’s servant; let it be to me as you have said” – echoes down the ages. But amid joy and wonderment, the written records of that first Christmas thread something darker. Much darker.
If the gospels, read from one angle, present as a sequence of differing responses to Jesus – yearning, defensiveness, fury, surrender – his polarising effect on people begins even before his birth. The story of the magi arriving in Jerusalem to seek “the one who has been born king of the Jews;” of King Herod’s consternation and plotting; of the rage in which he orders the massacre of the infants of Bethlehem – is the story (to use a very contemporary word) of how the privileged respond to the news that the king has come to his kingdom.
Herod’s problem is that he has so much to lose.
Privilege has become a loaded term, an accusation we fling at each other: white privilege, male privilege, check your privilege. It’s a term that has a way of raising hackles.
For Herod, of course, the most powerful, the most privileged, the announcement is an existential threat. Herod had been named “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate in 37 BC. This was his title. His life-long friend, Mark Antony, had given it to him, and Octavian, after becoming the Emperor Augustus, had confirmed it.
When our story begins, Herod has been King of the Jews for more than 30 years, but it’s been far from plain sailing. He’s built cities and fortresses; a great palace; he’s rebuilt the Temple entirely. He has been constantly currying favour. He has been constantly jealous, constantly politicking. His physical and mental health deteriorated as he got older; he quarrelled with Judea’s neighbours; he had to suppress a revolt. He altered his will three times and eventually had several members of his own family killed, including his first-born son.
Herod is alert to threats to his rule above all else. He has never been secure. He is more than aware that the Jews he is supposedly king of have never really thought him Jewish enough – his father was an Edomite who converted to Judaism; his mother was Arab. He knows he does not have the royal pedigree. So, when the magi come to town asking the question, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” … that question must especially rankle.
Herod’s ambitions, were they not so bloodthirsty, were their results less tragic, would be laughable.
Herod’s problem is that he has so much to lose. This is a recurring theme, of course, throughout the gospels. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” the grown-up Jesus will say. “Blessed are those who mourn.” “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” The privileged face extra impediments to receiving news of this kingdom rightly; Pharisees get it wrong where fishermen get it right.
And Herod, naturally, gets it wrong. When the magi arrive on their very public quest, he experiences the news of a king born to the harried, oppressed Jewish people not as a thrill of hope – reason for a weary world to rejoice – but as a fear clutching at the heart, the threat of displacement. And he moves, in his power and his privilege, to extinguish the threat. This is a man who would later have his own first-born child executed. Why would he hesitate to massacre a village worth of other people’s babies and toddlers? He moves to preserve his position at all costs.
“What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?”
And part of the irony, of course, is that Herod is not gaining the whole world, by any stretch. His is a mid-size throne, in a client state of a grander empire. Herod’s ambitions, were they not so bloodthirsty, were their results less tragic, would be laughable. Even if he could succeed in thwarting the prophecy – in thwarting God himself – however well this pans out for Herod, he can’t keep what he has. The throne won’t be his forever; as it turns out, death is, for Herod, just around the corner. In fact, the historian Josephus tells us that he attempted suicide not long after this.
We know it will cost us, in perhaps only dimly perceived ways, to abdicate the throne of our lives to make way for him.
Those of us who benefit from the status quo are more likely to await change, to await revolution, with fear rather than hope. The coming of the Messiah to topple rulers from their thrones and lift up the humble only sounds like good news if you’re the humble.
And really, surplus to requirements is precisely how our culture mostly thinks of this King Jesus. If you’re reading this, you very probably count as the privileged; and when we hear the news that the Messiah, God’s anointed king, has arrived, there’s a pull in us to respond with suspicion, to move to preserve control. We know it will cost us, in perhaps only dimly perceived ways, to abdicate the throne of our lives to make way for him; but we also know that he’s the one with the legitimate claim to that throne.
The wise men were unwise, probably, to burst in on a precarious kingdom with tidings of a newborn king, and expect most people – the current king, first of all – to accept that as good news. And yet they’re our best model in Matthew’s narrative, the ones who are unhampered by their privilege.
“When they saw the star,” Matthew tells us, “they were overjoyed.” When they find him, they lay their treasures, the best of what they have, at his feet.
Jesus comes to save and heal, to comfort and restore. But he comes also to disrupt, to overthrow, to cast down and lift up.
Herod is the villain of the Christmas story, but he’s a cautionary tale, too. He’s a reminder that it’s lonely on the throne. That we should be careful what we wish for. He is remembered, as presumably he wished to be – but mostly as a petty, cruel, half-mad tyrant. And the title he coveted, the title he wanted to preserve at all costs – the King of the Jews – the next time we come upon that phrase in the Gospel of Matthew it’s more than 30 years later, and the baby who escaped Herod is standing before another ruler who answers to Rome. When Pilate asks him, “Are you the king of the Jews?,” Jesus answers only, “You have said so.” Soldiers mock and beat him, calling out, “Hail, king of the Jews!” And Pilate has the charge against him written on a sign that’s fastened over his head as he hangs on the cross: This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.
It’s hard for the privileged to abdicate the throne of their own lives. Jesus himself makes that clear, if the example of Herod isn’t enough. As the privileged (if we can accept the label), what do we fear to lose with Jesus as our king? Our autonomy? Our pleasures or comforts, perhaps? Are we shaped more by what we have to lose than by what we gain in Christ? To put the challenge another way: am I more middle-class than I am Christian?
This season of advent – the season of awaiting the king – reminds us of the need to prepare him room in our hearts. Just as the original narrative contains darkness as well as light, Herods as well as magi, so the invitation to come and worship continues to be two-edged.
Jesus comes to save and heal, to comfort and restore. But he comes also to disrupt, to overthrow, to cast down and lift up. Those who over the centuries have found this king neither surplus to requirements, nor a mere ornamental addition to an already pretty good life, have joyfully proven over and over again the words of the missionary and martyr Jim Elliot: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
Natasha Moore is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. Visit www.publicchristianity.orgMore