Somehow, the `religion questions` in the Christmas Quiz weren`t as straight forward as we had thought. “How did Mary get to Bethlehem?” we were asked…. and so many replied “On a donkey”. Yet, despite what we commonly assume there is no reference in the Bible to Mary riding on a donkey. Come to think of it there`s no mention either of an Ox or an Ass in the stable and we`re not even told that there were THREE Wise men- we just assume there were three because of the number of gifts.
Of course, there`s no crime in not being aware of these things. These embellishments to the story are the fruit of many years of reflection and what`s called `imaginative contemplation`. It`s what happens when you pray with these events….. you enter into the narrative, you get to feel the sand under your feet and the breeze in your face and the characters come alive.
This is part of what we`re attempting to do in a Nativity Play; and there we see embellishments galore and I always take my hat off to the School Teachers who manage to find a part for everyone to play… even if it`s third shopper on the left. That in itself is a message… there`s something about these events which is about ALL of us.
But what I`ve noticed this year is not so much the additions or embellishments to the story but rather one significant omission and therefore the potential for distortion. The omission that I have in mind is King Herod. Somehow, in the Nativity Scenes I`ve seen he`s slipped out of view. He doesn`t even appear in the guise of a `pantomime baddy`. And I think this is a serious error. You see we rightly celebrate the coming of Christ whom we refer to as the `light of the world`. But light only really gains its significance against the dark and it seems to me that Herod is there to represent exactly that. He stands for the world`s rebellion against the kingdom of God. He stands for the darkness both within and around us. Herod and all that he contributes to the narrative provides if nothing else a healthy dose of reality.
Now, I have to declare an interest. In my school Nativity play- aged nine -I was Herod; a very loud one who was deeply offended at the suggestion that there could be any other King than me. But the whole thing taught me that the world is full of bullies like that. It taught me that if our faith is worth anything at all it has to do with the little question of whose world this is anyway…… Even at that early age the fury with which Herod responded to the notion that there could be any other “King of the Jews” taught me about what the Litany calls the `deceit and corruption of evil`. The insidious nature of sin.
It`s not just that the birth of Christ is a challenge to the powerful of this world: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones.” (Luke 1.52) sings Mary in the Magnificat and we attempt to blunt it`s revolutionary edge by setting it to beautiful music at Evensong…. No, Herod stands for each one of us and our petty attempts to live as if God is not God. He was, after all a puppet King, in hock to the Romans; a rather ridiculous figure with all the insecurity that goes with it. And his reaction to the coming of Christ; what he did in killing those children (what we call the massacre of the Innocents) reminds us of what`s at stake.
It was the son of this Herod who eventually took part in Christ`s trial. We`re not told whether he knew whether he was finally carrying out his Father`s wishes but we see clearly how the patterns of rebellion against the Kingdom of God flow through the generations with consummate ease and indeed savagery. This younger Herod (who finally caught up with Christ) arranged things to so that when he died a host of his court officials would be executed. That way, he supposed there would at least be some people crying at his funeral.
The insanity, the monstrous brutality of evil is never far away- as the people of that Pakistani school will testify…. And I`m suggesting that without Herod in the mix; without his contribution to the Christmas Story we lose hold on reality; we lose hold on Christ and the task he came to accomplish.Essentially the presence of Herod and what he did in murdering those children illustrate what`s at stake. He stands for the environment in which our faith is forged and lived out; the struggle to hold on to faith in the world as it is and he`s a potent reminder of our own rebellion.
It`s not that we lose hold on the Good News. No, as St. John tells us, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1.5) Quite so, but we don`t do ourselves any favours when we read only part of the Christmas story or gloss over, amend or sanitize it in an attempt to make it fit a narrative that has far more to do with Charles Dickens than Jesus of Nazereth. No, this isn`t necessarily comfortable but when Herod is removed; when the reality of evil is glossed over in this way everything is excused and nothing is forgiven.
Listen to the language that is used these days. A misdemeanour is reported in the news; in Banking, Government or wherever. A representative figure is wheeled on to give account for what happened and what do we hear? Not, “We did something wrong and we apologise” but instead “We made a mistake”. These are not the same things. And we don`t do ourselves or anyone else a favour when we fail to point this out.
At the heart of the Christmas Story is a rebellious world; wrapped in the darkness of sin- the attempt to live as if God is not God- and in the presence of the light the world and we have two basic responses- either lash out or couch things in such a way as to avoid responsibility. This is what Herod represents and we omit him from the Christmas Story at our peril. Because when you read the whole story… then you get the whole Jesus and you get the Good News. And then you understand why the Angels said to Joseph: “You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins”. (Matthew 1.21)