Herod was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children (Matt 2)

In the orderly account in which Luke tells the story of the first Christmas, we become engrossed in a story that is always presented in gentle, romanticised ways. It is a story about a pregnant woman and her partner, an angel appearing at the time of conception to the mother-to-be, announcing good news of great joy.

It is a story that reports how, nine months later, the angel appeared again, to some shepherds in the fields. It is a bucolic pastoral scene, or so we think. (Luke 1–2).

There is also a census and a journey, a choir of angels singing songs, announcing peace, declaring good news, celebrating joyfully. And there is an overfull stable, necessitating the birth of the child in a temporary location, and finally a child who is laid in a manger with his mother and father by his side. But all is calm, all is serene, all is gentle. So we believe. So we sing. So we think.

By contrast, in the book of origins, as Matthew tells that same story, we are invited into a different saga, with a different tone. Whilst there is a baby, with mother and father, in this version, there is no manger, no shepherds, and certainly no choir of angels.

In fact, there is just one angel, and this solitary angel speaks only with the father, not with the mother, not once, but three times in all. And each time, the message is ominous: she is pregnant! you must leave, now! and, hurry back home!

There is no announcement of good news of great joy. There is no census and no journey, at least, at the point of birth. But there is a tyrannical king, a set of visitors from foreign places, a prophecy that enrages the king, and a response which terrifies the visitors, who rapidly leave to return to their homeland.

And the story as Matthew tells it continues with a violent pogrom, the slaughter of innocent babies. “Herod was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men” (Matt 2:16).

It continue with a rushed journey by the father and mother and their infant child, travelling as refugees seeking safety in a foreign place. They return home some time later, only after the tyrannical despot has died. This later part of the story is featured rarely, if at all, in the classic depictions of the Christmas story.

The festival of Epiphany, celebrated after the Twelfth Day of Christmas on 6 January, invites us to think about the journey made by these wise men. The journey is romanticised by the fact that they bring gifts to the infant and his family—gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

The gifts, it is claimed, are symbolic of what is to come. The gold is considered to symbolise the royal status of the child, as he is of the line of David. The frankincense is connected with the Temple cult, and thus considered a symbol of the priestly role eventually to be played by the child.

Then, there is myrrh, which Christian tradition links with the death that will be experienced by the infant when he has grown to maturity—death at the hands of a Romans, who offered him wine mixed with myrrh as he hung dying on a cross. The story of origins already prefigured the story of ending.

That part of the story—the gifts that the wise men brought—feeds into the romance and wonder that Luke’s version offers (at least, in the way it is usually understood). But the horror, the terror, the violence, the grief, of the events perpetrated under Herod, are not in view. Because Epiphany is about revelation, about light shining forth, about God being known and experienced in the midst of ordinary life.

This year, perhaps we might pause, and wonder: how does the story of Herod’s murderous rampage reveal the presence of God in the story?

I have no answer … just a question. How is God present, evident, shining forth, at such a time?

It is a question that is pressing, given the context in which I, and many Australians, have experienced Advent, Christmas and Epiphany this year.

As the bushfires rage, inflaming and destroying, purpling plumes of smoke into the air and ravaging forests, ecosystems, native animals and stock, as well as human property and human lives—the question seems ever more pertinent: where is God in this catastrophe?

As the early followers of Jesus found hope in the midst of the story of terror and violent destruction, so may we search, explore, and yearn for hope in this current situation.

On hymns that include the story of Herod’s rampage, see https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/03/herod-waiting-herod-watching-herod-grasping-holding-power-matt-2/

For prayers that are appropriate for a time in the midst of bushfires, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/22/we-wait-and-hope-and-grieve-anticipating/

and

https://greaterfarthantongueorpen.wordpress.com/2020/01/01/415/

For a reflective prayer on the wise men, see http://praythestory.blogspot.com/2019/12/make-it-now.html

For an overall comparison of Matthew with Luke, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

Herod waiting, Herod watching, Herod grasping, holding power (Matt 2)

The book of origins is unique, within the New Testament (and, indeed, within the whole literature of antiquity) in reporting a savage, indiscriminate pogrom, ordered by King Herod, and carried out under his watch—the murder of all infant males under two years of age within Bethlehem (Matt 2:16-18).

The story hardly ever features in any Christmas or Epiphany services or sermons. However, a number of contemporary hymn writers have turned their attention to this story. Shirley Erena Murray, a Presbyterian from Aotearoa New Zealand, is right on the money when she highlights the violence and fear at the heart of the story, claims that the infant in the story has “come to plead war’s counter-case”, and articulates the hope that “goodness will outclass the gun, evil has no tooth that can kill the truth.”

Summer sun or winter skies, Christmas comes —

shepherds, angels, lullabies, words recorded by the wise:

read it in the book — take another look . . . .

Shadows track the hawk in flight, Christmas now —

children born in fire and fight, silent night a violent night,

hawks are in control of a nation’s soul

There where terror plies its trade, Christmas now —

children learn to be afraid, minefields of distrust are laid,

evil is in force on a winning course

Child of peace, God’s human face, Christmas now —

come to plead war’s counter-case, bring the dove a nesting place,

though her wings are torn, though her blood is drawn

Winter skies or summer sun, Christmas comes —

still the threads of hope are spun, goodness will outclass the gun,

evil has no tooth that can kill the truth.

That is why the ancient story resonates so strongly with our situation today. Not because “it really happened, exactly like this”, but because it takes us to the centre of our humanity and reveals the depth of God’s presence in our midst. We ought to sing more about it!

http://www.hopepublishing.com/html/main.isx?sitesec=40.2.1.0&hymnID=430

Another contemporary hymn writer who has turned his attention to the story of Herod’s tyrannical rampage against the male children in Bethlehem, is the British Methodist, the Rev. Dr Andrew Pratt. Here is a powerful hymn which he has written about this story.

Herod waiting, Herod watching,

Herod grasping, holding power,

Herod fearful for the future,

Herod counting every hour.

 

Now the thing that he was fearing:

love and justice, peace and health,

here embodied in a person,

God incarnate, heaven’s wealth.

 

This was more than he could stomach,

human wine skins tear and rend.

Herod’s dream had been confounded,

human power had met its end.

 

Many children now were crying,

temper triumphed, babies dead.

Mary, Joseph made an exit,

every step was filled with dread.

 

Into exile they were driven,

fear would ripple through each life:

Jesus challenged vested interests.

Gracious love fuelled hate and strife.

 

And the children still are crying,

forced to war and harmed by hate.

Still our world is deaf to hear them,

still our loving comes too late.

© Andrew Pratt 18/11/2010

First after Christmas, Matthew 2: 13 – 23,

Herod, Holy Innocents, the flight into Egypt.

https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/herod-waiting-herod-watching

What a pity that this potent story, full of pathos, and so resonant with events in the world in which we live today, has all but faded from view in the story that is recounted each Christmas. There are clear words in these carols which show how the story challenges political values and policies and how it connects with the deepest feelings of human existence.

For more on Epiphany, see next post