Reflection Advent 2001: Herod and Mary

Reprinted from The Common Good, no. 22, Advent 2001
by Brian Terrell

In Advent, these weeks before the celebration of the birth of Jesus at Christmas, themes of Jesus’ conception, birth and infancy, as related in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, will be told and retold but usually only in part. There will be incessant church and Sunday school pageants, television specials, hymns and carols, Christmas cards and displays of the manger prominent at churches, shopping malls and places of business, public and private. The good news of the birth of a saviour as it is commonly abridged, presents Christmas as a time of wonder and magic, a time of joy, comfort and celebration for rich and poor alike, wherein earthly struggles and conflicts have no part and are set aside and forgotten.

The whole story, however, cannot be represented as a ‘Precious Moments™’ figurine, nor does it offer much comfort or reason to celebrate for the rich and powerful. Unexpurgated, Matthew (2:1-18) and Luke (1:26-2:38) rescue Christmas from a morass of sentimentality and root the story of our salvation and of Jesus’ birth square in the mess of human history, breaking into our tangled webs of political, economic and personal relationships.

Luke tells how the birth of Jesus was greeted with joy by shepherds who were among the poorest and most marginalised in Judean society. There is no news that is good news for everybody and Matthew reports that when King Herod heard from travelling wise men of the birth of the king of the Jews, he was ‘greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.’ So troubled was Herod that in his fury and fear he ordered the slaughter of all the baby boys in Bethlehem in hopes of killing the promised one.

The massacre of the innocents of Bethlehem, essential as it is to the story, is rarely portrayed on Christmas cards and few crèche scenes include Herod’s soldiers sharpening their knives in the shadows. The Catholic Church regards these murdered babies as martyrs and, although few Catholics know it, remembers 28 December as Holy Innocents Day.

Not many Christian sermons question why some people were not happy to hear of the saviour’s birth. Some that do take this on seem to try to exonerate Herod, as though his murderous rage were all an unfortunate misunderstanding. Herod, this reasoning goes, mistook the spiritual reign of the promised messiah for a political one that would rival his own; if only Herod had realised that Jesus came only to save souls he would have joined the wise men in worshipping him. ‘Why are you afraid, Herod, when you hear of the birth of a king?’ asks an ancient sermon that is part of the Holy Innocents Day liturgy, ‘He does not come to drive you out, but to conquer the devil.’

In the gospel of Luke we read of Mary, a woman of a despised race dealing with a problem pregnancy while living under a brutal military occupation that should have crushed the hope that a young parent might have entertained for an expected child. She believed the promises given to her by God rather than the more reasonable forecasts for her child of more poverty, humiliation and slavery. ‘My spirit rejoices in God my saviour,’ Mary sang in expectation of the child to be born, ‘God has scattered the arrogant of heart and mind. God has thrown down rulers from their thrones but lifted the lowly. The hungry God has filled with good things; the rich have been sent away empty.’

Whether or not Mary could have read what the prophets had foretold about the coming of the messiah, she knew in the depths of her soul the promise that the poor would be judged with justice, the land returned to those who work it and swords turned to ploughshares—and so did Herod.

Mary and Herod shared an understanding and expectation of this new born child.. The only difference between them was their perspective. The greatest hope that a pregnant peasant woman heard in the promises of God was at the same time the direst fear of a king in his palace. The same promise seen from different points of view inspired one to rejoice and drove the other to murder. Unlike many of us, neither Herod nor Mary could afford to spiritualise the birth of Jesus, and if Herod was wrong about the mission of Jesus, so was Mary.

As citizens or clients of a superpower empire, one that grasps and drains the resources and wealth of its colonies and its own poor to itself, our perspective may be more that of Herod ‘and all Jerusalem with him’ than it is of Mary and the shepherds of Bethlehem. Certainly, we live under a state that is as ready as Herod was to sacrifice children for the sake of national security. The position and wealth of the United States in the world is no less dependent than was Herod’s on a willingness to starve, threaten and to kill even the innocent. When Madeleine Albright, speaking as US ambassador to the United Nations, explained that the deaths of more than 500,000 Iraqi children due to sanctions was ‘worth the price’ to promote US policy goals in the Middle East, she was articulating the ethics of Herod. In a culture that is more Herodian than it is Christian, Jesus, God incarnate as one poor and helpless, is still regarded by the rich and powerful as a nuisance to be isolated and destroyed, despite all the Christmas trees, Santa Clauses and tinsel-festooned corporate headquarters.

The celebration of Advent and Christmas can be for us a time of binge consuming and spending or it can be a time of deliberate striving and discipline to change our perspective from that of Herod , client king of the empire, to that of Mary, mother of Jesus.

The gospel is called ‘good news to the poor’ (Matthew 11.5). It is only from the perspective of the poor and dispossessed that the gospel of the kin-dom of God’s justice and equality can be truly welcomed as good news. It is only from this perspective that the birth of Jesus born in a stable can be celebrated without scandal and without shame.

I write these reflections in a time of great fear and uncertainty. When Christmas comes, I wonder if we will mark the day as Herod did, with a massive slaughter of the innocent, or if we will celebrate and rejoice with Mary and with the shepherds over the angelic proclamation, ‘Peace on Earth!’

Brian Terrell is, with his wife Betsy Keenan, founder of the Strangers and Guests Catholic Worker Farm in Maloy, Iowa, USA.

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