Christmas always reminds me of the story of the wise men who came from afar to see the new King. The coming of Christ was nothing less than world-changing, and these wise men came to see it. But equally as compelling, though much less sweet, was the aftermath of the story. The wise men may have been wise, but they were not familiar enough with the prophecies to go to Bethlehem. Instead, they went to the capital city, Jerusalem, and spoke to the king there. But that king was not David or Solomon, or even of their line. The king was Herod, an Idumean, of the descendants of Esau. And he was the very picture of a despot in the Roman Empire — willing to do absolutely anything to protect his power.
Herod, of course, cared nothing for the Jewish religion or its prophecies per se. But the promise of a king born in fulfillment of those prophecies spoke a language he understood all too well: a threat to his own kingship. And so, when wise men were reported to be seeking a king, he immediately invited them to the palace and feigned great interest in their quest. After diligently extracting every bit of information he could from them, he secretly called in experts in the Jewish scriptures and asked where this “king” should be born. They, of course, told him Bethlehem.
So Herod told the wise men to go to Bethlehem, begging them to let him know if they’re able to find this king, saying he would come and worship, too. Then he let them do the hard work of finding the child, waiting for the word of where he was.
All so he could kill this threat to his power. Machiavelli was a piker compared to Herod.
And he waited. And waited. Until it became obvious they were not coming back.
So he went to Plan B. Unable to find the exact child to destroy, he settled for destroying all that might be the one — all baby boys in or around Bethlehem under the age of 2.
As astonishing as this cruelty appears to us, it was not all that unusual in the ancient world. After all, Bethlehem was a small town. A few lives lost, and the throne was secure.
As transcendant as the promise of Christ was, as much as it was heaven touching the dust of our earth, the powers of the world cared only for themselves.
It’s tempting sometimes to question whether the birth of Christ could really be called a “world-changing” event. There’s certainly been plenty of cruelty and death in the world since then.
But for many nations across the earth now, the act of Herod, the slaughtering of innocent babies to protect political power, is now unthinkable. The coming of Christ and the influence of Christianity has changed what we see as “acceptable.”
And if that’s not world-changing, then you don’t appreciate the mundane cruelties of life before Christ.
I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
- I heard the bells on Christmas day
- Their old familiar carols play,
- And wild and sweet the words repeat
- Of peace on earth, good will to men.
- And in despair I bowed my head
- “There is no peace on earth,” I said,
- “For hate is strong and mocks the song
- Of peace on earth, good will to men.”
- Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
- “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
- The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
- With peace on earth, good will to men.”