We’re familiar with the calls to “keep Christ in Christmas.” Those calls are often spurred by an overemphasis on the jolly old man in the red suit, as well as a certain reindeer with a shiny nose that also happens to be red. Some people point to more serious concerns, like the commercialization of Christmas, although if we’re honest, the vast majority of us have contributed to the commercialization of Christmas, in one way or another!
I’ve never heard anyone argue that we should keep Herod in Christmas. I guess that’s to be expected. Herod, who serves at the leisure of the Roman Empire, is just another insecure tyrant who rules with an iron fist. What business does he have with Christmas? Actually, as we see in our gospel reading in Matthew, Herod has quite a bit to do with Christmas.
This is the story of what the church has come to call the Holy Innocents. We just celebrated their feast day. They are the little boys in and around Bethlehem that Herod, in his paranoid fear and rage, ordered to be (euphemistically speaking) taken out. This follows the visit of the Magi earlier in the chapter, which is the story for Epiphany.
(Their visit is believed to have come roughly two years after the birth of Jesus, but the date of the feast of the Holy Innocents provides the connection to Christmas—well, that and the meaning of the event!)
Anyway, Herod learns of these dignitaries from the East, who claim to have seen a star of great importance. They’ve been talking about a child who has been born King of the Jews. That kind of talk terrifies Herod. He doesn’t need the Romans hearing about this. All of Jerusalem is in an uproar. So he arranges a secret interview with the Magi. He tells them that when they find the young king, let him know about it. Herod says, with all the sincerity he can muster, “so that I too may go and honor him” (v. 8, Common English Bible).
As it turns out, they are warned in a dream to return home by a different route, completely bypassing Herod. This is what’s behind verse 16: “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated.” Make a fool of me, will they? I’ll show them!
Herod employs the “sledgehammer to swat a fly” approach. The numbers are hard to calculate, but probably twenty or thirty innocent families are victimized by his cruelty.
Getting back to the beginning of the sermon, I mentioned keeping Herod in Christmas. I asked: what does he have to do with Christmas? Jesus is born into a violent world. His homeland is under military rule. Many Roman provinces aren’t the headache that Judea is. They don’t constantly stir up rebellion.
The main reason the Romans even bother with it is its strategic location—the crossroads of Africa, Asia, and Europe. For centuries, the Promised Land has been a blessing and a curse; conquerors simply use it as a highway, heading toward more attractive destinations.
So it’s entirely appropriate for Herod, and his assassins, to be part of the Christmas story. We’re told that “we also have echoes of the attempt of the Pharaoh to kill Hebrew infants which led to Moses being set among the bulrushes. Jewish legends about this event also have dream warnings just as we have here and it is very likely that these were known to Matthew in composing the story.” So Herod is the new Pharaoh, and Jesus is the new Moses.
Angels seem to speak in dreams to Joseph on a frequent basis. An angel warns him of Herod’s plan. As a result, he “got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.” Matthew adds, “This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’” (vv. 14-15).
The Holy Family shares the fate of so many in our world today. Bill Long describes it this way: “the Savior of the world…was none other than a displaced person, a refugee, whose parents fled for their lives because of a ‘well-founded fear of persecution,’ to use the language of…21st century asylum law.”
He draws out the image even more. “Matthew uses the same verb several times to stress the fear felt by people—[αναχωρεω, anachōreō]. Though it literally means simply ‘to withdraw,’ in the context of Matthew it [also] carries with it the notion of fleeing for one’s life. The wise men fled. Jesus’ family fled… It has a haunting similarity to life in the 21st century.” It has a haunting similarity to our own country.
Jesus is not only the new Moses; though he’s a refugee, some would also use the unfortunate term “illegal alien”! And according to Luke, the family is also poor. When Mary undergoes the purification ritual after Jesus’ birth, she and Joseph make their offering by using a provision designed for the poor: “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons” (Lk 2:24, Lv 12:8).
I hope no one will think of me as morbid in pointing out the fear that is built into Christmas. It’s right there in the Bible. In fact, the second day of Christmas, December 26, is the feast of St. Stephen. In the book of Acts, he’s the first Christian to be martyred.
Regarding the atmosphere of fear, we’re reminded that there is “a refugee mentality here touched in the story, not [simply] because Jesus…went down to Egypt, but because the life of grace must dodge between the powers.” As Christians, our lives, our lives of grace, must also dodge between the powers.
Those powers can be represented by Herod—and the Herods of our day—those insecure tyrants. Those Herods, those new Pharaohs, inhabit the political world in which people, especially children, are turned into refugees and trapped in poverty. But those powers can be other types of Herods, such as insecure tyrants who seem bent on wreaking havoc in the family!
“Baptized in blood, those little children were among the first comers to heaven. Fittingly they, with their tiny King, are the founders of the Kingdom of Children. We celebrate their feast with joy; it is the most lyrical in the year. They reach down their small hands to comfort every father or mother bereaved of a child. They are the first who have proved that the Passion of the Christ can be lived in a tiny span by little ones...
“Herod ordered the children to be killed because he was afraid that any one of them might be Christ. Any Child might be Christ!—the fear of Herod is the fear of every tyrant, the hope of every Christian, and the most significant fact of the modern world.”
There is the reality that we can’t embrace the joy of Christmas while ignoring the suffering that goes with it. Matthew quotes Jeremiah (31:15), “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more” (v. 18). The prophet, who lived during the Babylonian exile, is referring to Ramah, a sort of transit point, where the Babylonians gathered captives for sending into exile. Rachel symbolizes the grief over the generations for all of the lost children.
Clearly, I think we’re all aware of how Christmas stirs up a mixture of feelings. While being bathed—beginning in November!—with festoons and wishes of a “holly jolly Christmas,” this time of year is also one of depression. That’s the idea behind Blue Christmas, a worship service which often happens during the winter solstice, the longest night.
It is a recognition of the grief that Christmas brings with it. It could be the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, the loss of a relationship—there can be many different kinds of losses. We all have mini-deaths in our lives.
Thankfully, our story does not end with Herod. Joseph has another dream of divine origin, letting him know Herod and his crew are dead and gone. However, Herod’s son has taken the reins, so Bethlehem still isn’t safe. Joseph has one more dream, directing him to his new destination, Galilee. The family settles in Nazareth.
So, our story does not end with Herod. Still, do we in any way reflect the spirit of Herod?
Later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus speaks of the need to change and become like children (18:3). We easily fall prey to imitating the insanity of Herod. We crush the child within us, the part which carries the wholly innocent spirit that is open to wonder, open to joyous creativity—believing that anything is possible. We can crush the child within each other, within our society, and God forbid, within the church. (Maybe especially within the church!)
Knowing who and what Herod is, why indeed should we seek to keep him in Christmas? Is it enough to know he’s already there? Is it enough to stand with our sisters and brothers for whom this time is a struggle? Is it enough to remember the children for whom our world is a struggle? Perhaps.
But thanks be to God, those little children, those Holy Innocents, keep witnessing, though their time was short. They are constantly reborn in us. Maybe that’s a lesson from Christmas, the little child who is born for all of us.
 Caryll Houselander, A Child in Winter, ed. Thomas Hoffman (Franklin, WI: Sheed & Ward, 2000), 109-110.