Having observed the annual round of Christmas festivities in my culture for all of my sixty-three odd years, I have come to the conclusion that my culture knows absolutely nothing about the true meaning of Christmas. And this is not just because they have completely forgotten about Christ apart from the two times of the year when they publish articles in their newspapers and magazines waging war against Him (i.e. debunking the Christian Faith in the Christmas and Easter editions), so that all would be well if we could but “keep Christ in Christmas”. The rot goes deeper than mere forgetfulness and secular commercialism, and we need more than dear old Linus reading the relevant lines from St. Luke’s Gospel to know “what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown”. We are misled not so much by the crass cold commercialism, but by the warm-hearted sentimentalism. We see with dewy eyes pictures of a beautiful young mother, and a beautiful new-born baby, and sweet shepherd boys (sometimes oddly outfitted with a drum) and lambs and sheep, and of philosopher kings kneeling, offering gifts to the Child with all the solemnity of humbled power, and we conclude that Christmas is a celebration. A celebration of exactly what is not quite so clear—a celebration of human goodness and goodwill among men? Of peace on earth? Of sweetness and light and hope? A celebration of family? But whatever the particulars, we are sure that it is primarily a celebration of some kind, and so we are happy to celebrate, at least until the end of Boxing Week or until the tree comes down.
That is just where we need to learn of King Herod’s part in the whole Christmas drama, the main subject of the Orthodox Church’s Gospel reading for the Sunday after Nativity. Herod has come in for something of a makeover of late. In classic Church hymnography he always played the part of the villain, and so of course the same modern culture which regularly wars against Christ in its magazines is happy to offer Herod some sort of rehabilitation, if not actual acquittal. We are told (for example in the pages of the National Geographic) that we have been rather too hard on Herod, that there is more to the historical Herod than the maniac found in Matthew, and that he was an inspired politician and a terrific builder—as if one could not be simultaneously an evil man and a great builder, whether or a Jewish Temple or a German autobahn.
One thing that historians still agree upon is that Herod elevated paranoia to a kind of art form: he was responsible for the murder of several of his own sons and of his wife when he thought they were plotting against him, and had such a reputation that one Roman (in a quip attributed to Augustus) observed that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than his son, since Jews did not slaughter and eat pigs. Historians also recall that Herod was concerned that after he died there would be no one to mourn his death, so he arranged to have a large group of notables come to Jericho and left orders for them to be slaughtered when he died so that at least some tears would be shed at his passing. (Fortunately this order was not carried out.) Herod was therefore more than capable of slaughtering a dozen or so infants in Bethlehem (the figure of 14,000 sometimes given is symbolic, not historical), and the slaughter was of such little lasting import that it is not surprising that it did not merit mention from Josephus in his history of Herod. A dozen of so peasant children in a tiny village hardly showed up on the stats.
Herod’s part in the drama reveals that Christmas is not so much a human celebration of goodwill as it is a divine challenge to the status quo. And that status quo badly needed challenging: St. Paul says that Satan was the god of this age (2 Corinthians 4:4); St. John says that the whole world was in power of the Evil One (1 John 5:19), and the Lord Himself referred to the devil as the ruler of this world (John 12:31). Given this invisible demonic tyranny, it is not surprising that people like Herod should so often be found at the visible and political levers of power. Christ was born to overthrow the tyranny of the devil, and to abolish death, and to wash away guilt and sin, and to fill the despairing with joy, transfiguring the world, making it a place where at last righteousness could dwell and the lion could lie down with the lamb. King Herod understood this, and knew that the Bethlehem birth constituted a challenge not only to his throne, but to all the iron thrones of men who ruled in this darkened age. That is why he took such vigorous counter-measures to defend the status quo, killing anyone who might challenge his rule and forcing the Holy Family to skip the country and live as refugees. Christmas was more than a celebration; it was God’s trumpet, announcing to Herod the beginning of the end. It was a banner of war, unfurled to declare that a divine revolution had begun.
That revolution continues, and every year Christmas summons us to play our part in it. For Herod has not gone, but rules still, for Herod is more than an historical ruler or a dynasty. He is a Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, so that we still live under his regime, and will continue to do so until the kingdom of this world has become the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ (Revelation 11:15). How then should we live while under this regime? I suggest three things.
First of all, recognize that we are being lied to. Our culture lies to us every day, all day long, in every newscast, magazine, book, movie, and in its social media. I do not mean that all news is necessarily fake news, for the lies are not necessarily in matters of fact, but in matters of ideology. Even when the suppositions are correct, the presuppositions they are based on are not. We are told, for example, that the most important thing in life is for everyone to get along, so that Miss America contestants are famously always speaking of wanting World Peace. We are told that in essence all religions are the same, and that it is their function to comfort their practitioners, and to inspire them to behave with tolerance and kindness. The presuppositions are not entirely wrong; there is truth dangling before us, like bait on a hook. But the hook beneath the bait is very sharp. We must therefore train both ourselves and our children to be discerning, and somewhat sceptical, and to ask many questions. We are not to be vacuum cleaners sucking up indiscriminately everything we find, but food-tasters, training our palettes to detect in the food the presence of poison.
Secondly, we must stay in formation. The Church is not only a gathering, a synaxis and assembly, but also an army. When a candidate becomes a catechumen, the priest signs him with the Sign of the Cross, lays his hand upon his head, and thereafter refers to him as “the sealed, newly-enlisted soldier of Christ our God”. The epistles of St. Paul are replete with martial imagery, for the baptized Christian is a part of the militia Christi. The temptation always is to break ranks and run, thinking that we can make more progress or be happier or find fulfillment on our own, as an individual no longer apart of the Church of God. This is precisely what the Enemy wants, for a lone soldier is much easier to pick off. That soldier may consider himself to be the Last Jedi, valiantly fighting for truth on his own. In fact he will likely soon become known not as the Last Jedi, but as the Latest Casualty. Stay in formation; that is the place of safety and sanity and final victory.
Finally, we must rejoice in the Lord. One might imagine that living under Herod’s regime as part of God’s resistance army and abiding challenge would cause one to cringe and cower, and that Duck And Cover would be our favourite posture. The opposite is true: the Lord said that when things were at their worst and the world was fainting with fear and foreboding, His disciples should straighten up and lift up their heads, because their redemption was drawing ever nearer (Luke 21:26f). We do not hide; we sing, for complaining, protesting, denouncing, and otherwise whining about the evils of the world does little to commend our faith to the mass of men. We must speak the truth, but speak it with calm gladness, and then continue to sing. Only so can our creed be made credible. Herod’s regime is doomed, and for all his raging, his kingdom will become the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ. And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.