“Massacre in Bethlehem: Twenty Boys Slain in House to House Raid.”
Had there been a newspaper in Jerusalem two millenia ago, that might have been the headline after Herod the Great murdered all the boys two years old and under in the neighborhood of Bethlehem. How many did he kill? Historians suggest about twenty–the same number of children that were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary.
History paints Herod as a violent and manipulative madman. He carried the title of “King of the Jews” by fiat of the Roman senate, but the people of Judea never accepted him as their rightful king. He wasn’t ethnically Jewish, and they disapproved of his nasty habit of assassinating his rivals, people who came from a high-priestly dynasty, and with a more legitimate claim to the throne than he. Among his murder victims was his second wife, whom he had married purely for political advantage.
By the time we get to the story told in Matthew 2, Herod would have been king for about 30 years. Not having the loyalty of the people, he ruled by an intimidation that mirrored his own paranoia. Imagine, then, how he reacted when strangers landed on his doorstep one day, asking after the one who had been born King of the Jews. Born: a legitimate king. Another dangerous rival to be eliminated. By that time, it had become habit.
We know the story. Herod tried to trick the magi, but didn’t count on God’s quiet intervention. When he finally realized his scheme had failed, he flew into a rage, and ordered what has come to be known as the Massacre of the Innocents. There’s no actual historical record of the event outside of Matthew’s gospel. But as some scholars have suggested, against the backdrop of the brutality of Herod’s reign, historians may have considered the slaughter just another slow news day.
Matthew, of course, isn’t primarily interested in the story of King Herod, but in the story of the One who inaugurates the kingdom of heaven. He opens his gospel with a genealogy that establishes Jesus as being of the house of David, as the Messiah should be. Again, in chapter 2, the magi refer to Jesus as the one born to be the king of the Jews. And the theme of the kingdom runs like a golden thread throughout the whole of the book.
In Matthew 2, then, we have a clash of kings and kingdoms. One king is a power-mad adult; the other, a baby. Herod is a headline-grabbing tyrant whose reign is but a moment of sound and fury that quickly disappears from the story. Jesus comes quietly, without pomp and circumstance, to inaugurate an eternal kingdom of peace.
This is the time of year in which we send and receive Christmas letters, in which we give people our family “headlines” for the year. Who got engaged, married, or had a child? Who’s in college now? Who started a new job? Where did you go on that dream vacation?
But the most memorable events of the year are often tragic–filled with loss, anxiety, or regret. They may not be of the same tragic scale as Bethlehem or Sandy Hook, but they’re our headlines nonetheless, and are deeply important to us.
So we pray, and we ask others to pray. We may want a headline-making intervention from a powerful God. We want a miracle.
And silently, so silently, we are given one. God reaches down, and puts a baby into our outstretched arms at Christmas.
In what quiet way has God visited you this year?
May we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear.