Carols in a Minor Key

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Throughout this season of Advent our focus is “The Story of Christmas in 20 Words.”  On each of the 20 weekday mornings ending on Christmas Eve, we’ll spotlight a single word from the Gospel accounts that helps us ponder more deeply the birth of Jesus.

19.  Herod

Christmas is the only holy day that is also a secular holiday.  

The culture at large is captivated by the joys of December 25.  Those who shrug off the spiritual implications of Jesus’ birth are often more than willing to borrow the angels’ promise of peace on earth, and to share in the market’s passion for gift-giving.  
Yet as author and pastor Michael Slaughter is fond of pointing out, “Christmas is not your birthday.”  We can worry ourselves silly trying to throw memorable parties and picking out just the right presents for people who probably don’t need a thing.  Shopping does not meet the deepest needs of the human soul. 

But Christmas should at least make us smile, right?

The notion that God became a human being (and a baby, at that) in order to rescue humanity is an idea of staggering beauty and significance.  But Matthew, in composing the Gospel that bears his name, felt led to include details that remind us that Jesus came into a world that is calculated to break our hearts. 

They involve a magistrate named King Herod.  Or as he liked to call himself, Herod the Great. 

As one scholar has observed, the man who ruled Israel for almost 40 years, and who happened to be on the throne when Jesus was born, bore a title he did not deserve, did not inherit, did not live up to, and had to murder in order to keep.  He was a complex character: racially Arab, religiously Jewish, culturally Greek, and politically Roman.  Herod skillfully and cynically played to all four audiences. 

The bottom line is that Herod was a monster. 

He had 10 or 11 wives (even historians have a hard time keeping track), and in a suspicious rage ordered the execution of Mariamne, the only one he seems to have loved.  He also ordered the violent deaths of one of his mothers-in-law, two brothers-in-law, an uncle, and even his old barber, who had quietly spoken up on their behalf.  Herod demanded the executions of three of his sons, propelled by the fear that they were trying to grab the throne a bit prematurely.   

Caesar Augustus once said, with disgust: “It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son.”  It was a clever pun, since the Greek words for pig (hys) and son (huios) sound very similar.  Caesar figured that since Herod was half-Jewish, a pig was more likely to avoid slaughter than his own children.

Herod was grimly realistic about public perceptions. 

His subjects despised him because of his deficient Jewish genealogy.  His Roman overlords despised him because he wasn’t sufficiently Gentile.  As his death approached, the king arranged for the incarceration of 70 esteemed public leaders.  He ordered they be killed immediately after his demise.  That way, he concluded, at least a few people would shed tears on the day of his death.  At the last minute the reckless plan was subverted by a compassionate official.  

Then came the day that a group of Magi – pagan astronomers / astrologers from somewhere east of Judea – arrived in Jerusalem.  In their search for truth, they had followed an unusual star.  Now they approached the current king of Israel concerning the arrival of a new king of Israel.  Did he happen to have any insights into this momentous development?  Surely he would be the right person to ask.

The paranoid Herod was indeed grateful the Magi had come directly to him.  Now he could authorize another round of genocide to ensure his survival on the throne.

The king ordered the extermination of every male two years and younger in the vicinity of Bethlehem.  Because Joseph was warned in a dream to flee with his family, Jesus narrowly escaped the sword.

But other children did not.  Historians guess that the “slaughter of the innocents” may have taken as many as a dozen young lives.  It’s the darkest chapter in the original Christmas story – one that never appears in the creches on our living room mantels and gets no play at all in traditional Christmas carols.   

One day God will set everything right.  But that day has not yet come.  Until then, some of our songs will have to be in minor keys.

For Herod, think how things might have been different.  Wouldn’t it be amazing if carolers came to our front door every December singing about the king who was wise enough to yield his throne and his own heart to the true King, who was born in Bethlehem? 

Herod declined that opportunity.

But you and I can still say yes.

And we can add our voices to those who yearn to teach the world a new tune.