It might seem odd to start today’s service with a Carol but Epiphany was in fact only last Friday.
And as we have now packed up all the Christmas decorations and the holidays seem no doubt a distant memory, I thought it would be useful to dwell upon this rather horrific episode that crops up in the Christmas narrative. We probably ignored it when we heard the story in Carol Services before Christmas – possibly because it doesn’t seem to fit in with the celebratory tone we would want from the season – but it is a really important part of the story: and one that is extremely relevant to the world in which we live today.
Right in the middle of Matthew’s version of the Christmas story comes a shock. It is disturbing, terrifying and horrific.
King Herod, or Herod the Great, ruled over Judea in the years leading up to Jesus’ birth. Although he rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem - a sign of his Jewish identity - he was a puppet king who also depended on the Roman Empire for his status. He was, like many biblical characters - and like many people in the world today too - a man with an identity crisis. Cruel and ruthless, he used slave labour for his huge building projects and those slaves were treated abhorrently. He had a reputation for assassinating anyone he considered a threat - including his wife and two of his own sons.
Late in his reign, he began hearing rumours … rumours that the long-awaited liberator prophesied by Isaiah and others had been born. While a pious man might have greeted this news with hope and joy, Herod only saw it as a threat - a threat to political stability and to his own status as king.
In recent years, there had been a lot of resistance, unrest and revolt in Jerusalem, so Rome wasn’t in a tolerant frame of mind. Any talk of rebellion, Herod knew, would bring crushing retaliation against the city. So Herod enquired of the religious scholars to find out if the holy texts gave any indication of where this long-anticipated child would be born. Their answer came from the book of Micah: in Bethlehem.
Herod did what any desperate, ruthless dictator would do. First, he tried to enlist some foreign mystics, known to us as ‘the wise men from the East’. He wanted them to be his spies to help him discover the child’s identity and whereabouts so he could have the child killed. But the wise men were warned of his deceit in a dream and so avoided becoming his unwitting accomplices.
Realizing that his ‘Plan A’ had failed, Herod launched 'Plan B’. He sent his henchmen to find and kill any young boy living in the area of Bethlehem. But the particular boy he sought had already been removed from Bethlehem and taken elsewhere. Let us remember amidst the migrant crisis that Jesus was himself a refugee.
The result? A slaughter of innocent children in Bethlehem. As is the case with many biblical stories, some scholars doubt this mass slaughter occurred, since none is recorded in other histories of the time. Others argue that Bethlehem was a small town, so the total number of casualties may have been ‘only’ (and I use that word cautiously!) twenty or thirty. Dictators certainly have their ways of keeping atrocities secret - just as they have their ways of making their exploits known. Whatever the infant-death count in Bethlehem, we know Herod killed some of his own children when they became a threat to his agenda. So even if the story has been fictionalised to some degree, there is a deeper truth that has much to say to us today. And if you were following the news over the holidays, not least the siege of Aleppo, you will see why I think this narrative has some relevance to us in the modern world.
In his slaughter of innocent children, King Herod had now emulated the horrible behaviour of Pharaohs centuries before, in the days of Moses. A descendant of the slaves had ironically behaved like the ancient slave-master. The story of Herod tells us once again that the world can’t be simply divided between the good guys - us - and the bad guys - them - because like Herod, members of us will behave no differently from them, given the power and provocation so to do. So all people face the same profound questions: How will we manage power? How will we deal with violence? And again, there is some relevance for us here: we will all have moments in our lives where we have a power or influence – some one or few of you in this Church may go on to have the capacity for great power or influence. How will you use it? And more importantly, will you abuse it? This could be something as simple as an advantage you have over a peer in your class. They tell you a secret. You fall out. Do you use the information you have to mock them? Herod - and Pharaoh before him - model one way: violence is simply one tool, used in varying degrees, to gain or maintain power.
The baby whom Herod seeks to kill will model another way. His tool will be service, not violence. And his goal will not be gaining and maintaining power, but using his power to heal and empower others. He will reveal a vision of God that is reflected more in the vulnerability of children than in the violence of men, more in the caring of mothers than in the cruelty of kings.
All this can sound quite abstract and theoretical unless we go one step deeper. Any war - whoever wages it - will most likely resemble every war in the past. It will be planned by powerful, older men in their comfortable offices, and it will be fought on the ground by people the age of their children and grandchildren, something that Upper 4 [year 9] covered last term in Drama. Most of the casualties will probably be between eighteen and twenty-two years old - in some places, much younger. So the old, sad music of the ancient story of Herod and the slaughter of the children will be replayed again. And again, the tears of mothers will fall.
So, even after Advent, let us continue to light candles. Let us light a candle for the children who suffer in our world because of greedy, power-hungry and insecure elites. And let us light a candle for grieving mothers who weep for lost sons and daughters, throughout history and today. And let us light a candle for all people everywhere to hear their weeping.
And let us dare to believe that God feels their pain and comes near to bring comfort. If we believe that is true, then of course we must join God and come near, too. That is why we must keep Herod and the ugliness of his mass murder in the otherwise beautiful Christmas story.