The story of the massacre of the innocents punctures the sentimentality of Christmas. There is a possibility that our celebration of Christmas becomes like the pictures on the lids of tins of biscuits or on Christmas cards. We turn it into a warm glowing image of bovine contentment and family bliss. It is an occupational hazard for Christians, and particularly for preachers, at this time of year to bang on about the “real meaning of Christmas.” Though in fact in fact there is no guarantee that Christians or preachers will get any closer to the “real meaning” than anyone else. We are every bit as much in danger of falling into sentimentality as anyone else. Perhaps our sentimentality is focused on the stable, on Mary and Joseph, rather than on children, and memories of the past. But is sentimentality nonetheless. Ironically it is Herod, of all people, who grasps the true meaning of Christmas best of all!
Herod understands the significance of what he has learned from the wise men and from the scribes and the teachers of the Law. He knows who the child in Bethlehem is, and what it means for him. And if the baby Jesus in Bethlehem is Lord, then he Herod, realises that he isn’t. Herod is far from untypical. He is like most people in power, or people with something lose if the order of the world changes. Herod is driven by fear, fear of losing what he has. And he is driven by impatience, his desire to be in control and in control right now. And his fear and impatience drive him to murderous rage. Like many in power and with something to lose they don’t want God in the world spoiling their party. They would really rather God were dead. Herod killed his own sons to keep what he has. He has no hesitation in killing other people’s children for the same reason. Jesus provokes hostility among those who seek to hold onto what they have. He ignites anger among those who want to stay in power, and maintain the illusion that it is they who are in control.
It is hard to see what kind of a threat Herod imagined the under two’s posed, especially in the short term, that soldiers must be dispatched right away. But it becomes clear that “hating the Child swiftly turns to hurting children.” Someone once observed that the “death” of God is soon followed by the death of humanity. Perhaps it is measure of our failure to get the message of Christmas across clearly that it provokes no one to such anger, that the birth of the one who is the one who is Lord of all, who undermines everyone’s claims to power, and control and ownership, that the announcement and celebration of his birth now provokes no one to furious anger. Somewhere along the line the baby Jesus has become tamed and is no longer seen as the threat that he truly is.
Whilst the massacre of the innocents, for Matthew, fulfils the prophecy concerning Rachel, he is careful not to allow us to think that such cruelty is part of God’s plan. It is the inevitable consequence of Herod’s rejection of God, it is not something willed by God. The all-knowing God foresees the atrocities committed by human beings in defiance of God’s will .But we cannot reduce human responsibility by attributing Herod’s massacre in our time to God’s intent. Even faced with that massacre we are not free from the risk of sentimentality. By explaining it away as part of the divine plan, or reassuring ourselves that those innocents are now safe in the arms of the Lord we would be falling back into an emotion we as Christians should always try to avoid. Herod’s actions, like so many of those by people with any kind of power, are wickedness and deserve to be named as such. Rachel is inconsolable and rightly so! But the Christian narrative outlasts that of any despot or tyrant. Without fanfare it is announced Herod is dead. And so it will be for all who seek to control the world, or just their tiny part of it, by coercive means. Evil comes to an end. God does not. Which is why patience is a Christian virtue (and why impatience and sentimentality should be regarded as vices). And it is one of the virtues which Joseph displays. Godly Joseph is the antithesis of ungodly Herod. Herod refuses to acknowledge God, rejects God and his cruelty is the consequence. Joseph listens and responds to God. Joseph is an illustration of why the poor are blessed. He, it would seem has nothing more to lose, and therefore nothing to fear, and so he can respond openly to God and receive God’s blessing, the kingdom that is brought about in the child which Joseph held in his arms. One thing Christians must be very careful not to do, as they seek to be an alternative to Herod, is not to become an alternative to Herod. Which we would, by falling into Herod’s impatience by seeking to seize control on Christ’s behalf, by trying to defend Christ by meeting the force sent to destroy and exclude God from the world with a similar force of our own. Joseph demonstrates the appropriate way for Christians to respond to the threat the world poses to the presence of God in our midst. Joseph’s response to God’s presence in the world is service. He cares for the infant Jesus. He puts himself out for Jesus. And he goes where God leads him. He doesn’t allow himself the illusion of control, but obeys God’s will, in long journeys, difficult experiences and exile in a foreign land. Joseph bears the cost of loving Christ which is disruption and dislocation in his life. In contrast to Herod’s fear, impatience and rage, Joseph demonstrates trust, patience and obedience. And when his service is complete he slips modestly, completely out of the picture.
Christmas isn’t an easy answer to the world’s problems. That really is sentimentality. Like the Christmas truce in 1914. Christmas was not an immediate answer even to that war because at the end of Christmas day the two sides climbed back into their trenches and carried on slaughtering one another for almost 4 more years! The real message of Christmas, as with the whole message of Christianity, is that God is God. This is God’s world. But God is the one who comes to us in person in Jesus. Christmas is a sign of hope that God’s people can live in world like this, one where the innocent are still slaughtered with the patient assurance that at the heart of the universe a loving God is in control who sends a prince of peace to be with us
Herod and Joseph by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0