We could call this the ignored story behind Christmas or we could call it, “The Grinch that Almost Stole Christmas.” As we see the Christmas settings around town there will always be a nativity scene. We usually see the beautiful manger scene with baby Jesus but there is one missing figure every time. It’s not Frosty the Snowman or Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer and it’s not Santa.
Throughout the World Christmas pageants are common and have been a tradition in many churches. Our Sunday School classes have Christmas plays that always include three characters, Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus. There could also be some angels, wise men, shepherds and/or a few animals. There is one person however that is never in the Christmas pageant. And it’s right that he not be there for he is the vilest individual one could run into. But he is an important figure in the story and must be kept in Christmas.
And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him. (Matthew 2:13)
My post revolves around the second chapter of Matthew and verses 13 to 23 of the Holy Bible. Beginning back in Chapter 1; verse 18, Matthew describes an angel’s message to Joseph in a dream, followed by the journey of the magi in response to the appearance of the star, the magi’s conversation with Herod, their worship of the child, the slaughter of the innocents, and the holy family’s flight into Egypt, precipitated by another revelation to Joseph in a dream.
So, you see, the one figure from the biblical narrative you won’t see portrayed in a child’s Christmas pageant is King Herod. He is way too mean, nasty and evil to be involved on that holy night.
Most of us know the story of the wise men coming into the court of King Herod and asking where they could find the child born King of the Jews. Herod, was thought of as the King of the Jews and believed he was. Herod was crafty and thought he could have the foreigners lead him to this child born as King of the Jews and do away with him. But, the wise men saw through the evil plans of Herod and returned home, “by another way.” This is usually where the Christmas eve story typically ends.
That was only part one, though, of the two-part story. The second part is what everyone wants to ignore because the details are just horrific. It gets a “R” rating for the intense violence. We can’t be sharing this with kids heading home to put out milk and cookies for Santa. We never want to replace visions of sugarplums with horrible nightmares.
You see, King Herod was enraged when he found out the magi had double crossed him and did not lead him to the Christ Child. Because of this he sent his soldiers out to commit such an atrocity it ranks up there with Hitler’s deeds. He commands them to break into every Jewish home in the region in and around Bethlehem, find every male child and cut their throats.
You may or may not know there is a Christmas carol about this wicked action. It is called the Coventry Carol. The words are a melancholy lullaby, sung by grieving mothers to their dead children:
Herod the King, In his raging,
Charged he hath this day,
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.
Then woe is me, poor child for thee,
And ever mourn and say,
For thy parting, nor say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lully.
The carol tells the story of everything having been sweetness and light. But then, it all changed and they heard the pounding of fists on their doors as Herod’s soldiers were after all the newborn sons. The mothers of the City of David weep their bitter tears, and they cradle their lifeless babies in their arms:
Lullay, Thou little child,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Herod was in his final year of his 41 year reign and he was definitely evil enough to commit these atrocities. He was king in name only because the Romans were calling the shots then. It was Herod’s job to carry out all the dirty work like subduing a rebellious colony on behalf of the emperor. And Herod relished his dirty duties.
During his reign, he had at least nine wives and at least 14 children and perhaps more. He executed one of his wives named Mariamne for adultery, her mother declared herself queen charging Herod was unfit to rule so Herod put her to death without a trial. There were two young sons from his marriage with Mariamne and he looked at them as a threat so he executed them. After murdering his wife, mother and two sons he named his eldest son the exclusive heir to the throne. But then he grew jealous of the crown prince and had him executed. The emperor was so appalled that he refused to allow any of Herod’s remaining sons to claim the title of king- although three of them would eventually rule as “tetrarchs” each governing one third of his father’s realm.
Thirty-three years later, one of them, Herod Antipas, would look upon Jesus at last, as he stood before him in chains, wearing a crown of thorns.
Would anyone doubt that this man was capable of ordering the soldiers to kill babies?
We know that Jesus escaped that fate because an Angel of the Lord came to Joseph in a dream and warned him with instructions to flee to Egypt. Some may find it troubling that God would send an Angel to rescue Jesus but let all those little babies die.
That is a part of the theological issue we face so often: the problem of evil and sin, the question of why a just and an all-powerful God allows human suffering to take place. With that question answered elsewhere in no easy way, King Herod is well suited to play the role of evil incarnate.
So, Herod does not belong in a Sunday School Christmas pageant or play. But we must not forget about him.
King Herod is important to the Christmas story because he will help us remember what kind of world we live in and why this world needs a savior. Jesus did not come to the world to bring a mid-winter festival. He was not born into some Christmas card scene, rather He was born into a World where Families wander homeless and corrupt tyrants rule by murder and deceit. Jesus didn’t come to offer respite from the world. He came to save the world.
His Christmas weary disciples,
We have a role in carrying out the mission, by using the spiritual gifts he gave us along with whatever material resources we have.
It may be easier to remember the mission if we keep King Herod in Christmas.