“It was during the days of bad-hearted Chief Looks Brave (Herod) that the Chosen (Jesus) was born in the village of House of Bread (Bethlehem) in the Land of Promise (Judea). Matthew 2:1
Sending and receiving Christmas cards, is one of the things that I enjoy most about the Christmas season. I take my time choosing the cards that I will send. It’s a big decision! I like them to be beautiful. The sort of card that you might keep, and bring out in a frame, Christmas after Christmas.
The cards that we send, speak so much about the meaning of Christmas. But if they were to depict, more realistically, the actual days and times of the first Christmas, they would perhaps not hold the sort of images that we might want to place on our mantlepieces. The peaceful Christmas scenes would need to be replaced by far more unsettling images.
We get a sense of these images in today’s short verse from Matthew’s Gospel: ‘It was during the days of bad-hearted Chief Looks Brave (Herod), that the Chosen (Jesus) was born. ’
Chief Looks Brave, is an insightful name for Herod the Great. Known for his insecurity, paranoia and brutality, Herod was the client king (close ally) of Rome. Given the name of ‘King of Jews’ his reign was one of heavy taxation, where the rich and Rome benefited from the heavy taxation of the ordinary person. Herod, although a Jew, was the face of Rome to his subjects and he was disliked and feared. He employed secret police to report on people’s lives and he commissioned other military forces, to arrest and contain anyone who protested his rule. He was a king who thought nothing of killing members of his own family, including his own wife, when he suspected them of working against him. He also gave orders, on his death bed, that the prominent citizens of Jericho should all be slaughtered so that people would be weeping at his funeral. He is probably most known for the brutal violence he inflicted on the town of Bethlehem, when in his search for the baby that he had been told was born ‘King of the Jews’ (Matthew 2:2), he ordered all the baby boys under the age of 2 to be killed. Herod stands in stark contrast to honourable Joseph, faithful Mary, the wise and generous Magi and the innocent people of Bethlehem. And he stands ultimately in contrast to Jesus, the one that Matthew makes clear, is the true ‘King of the Jews.’
Herod’s reign, along with Rome’s rule, meant that Jesus was born into a land experiencing great times of trouble, tension, violence and fear. And as Matthew’s Christmas narrative goes on to show, Jesus was not going to be exempt from the trouble himself, as before he had even learned to ‘walk and talk, he was a homeless refugee with a price on his head.’ 1
Fleming Rutledge, in her brilliant book, Advent, writes of how, 'Advent begins in the dark.'2 And though, theologically, there is a distinction between Advent and Christmas, which we haven’t majored on this series, (Advent, being the season of preparation for the return of Jesus, rather than the season of preparation for Christmas), the Christmas narrative is one that also begins in the dark.
Matthew, in his Gospel, asks us to recognise that when things were at their darkest, Jesus’ birth came as the fulfilment of ancient promises and long-held hopes. Through this baby, born into the heart of Herod’s rule, God would begin the story of liberation, freedom, justice and peace. All the things that would challenge and quell the Herod’s of long ago and the Herod’s that still rule today.
The Christmas story tells us that darkness is the place where we find God most dynamically. In the unsettling, difficult days of Herod, when so many experienced violence, fear and injustice, God came and made God’s home. “It was God-with-us. Not the God-up-there-somewhere, who answers our prayers by lifting us out of our lives, but the God who comes to us in the midst of them.”3
And in our days and in our lives, however less than ideal our circumstances are, however difficult the challenges feel that we face, however deep the pain, or however much or little our lives reflect the Christmas cards that we send, God is born again and again, in any cradle we will offer him. For you see, if God is to be Emmanuel, God-with-us, he must be with us where the pain is.
And what of blessing? Can there really be blessing in days that are hard? The Christmas narrative would assure us, yes. Because blessings – it would seem - come into their own most pertinently when life feels at its darkest. For a blessing is, at its most vulnerable, a cry for help. A heartfelt plea for God’s tangible presence and a desire for reassurance that we are not left in the shadows, alone.
Whatever your life holds this Christmastime, dear friend,
May you find in the darkness,
May you know yourself held,
by the Love that knows
1. Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part One (SPCK, 2002)
2. Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ (Eerdmans, 2018)
3. Barbara Brown Taylor, Mixed Blessings (Canterbury Press, 2015)