A Symbolic Christmas
The Bible is full of symbolism. It’s also full of symbolic language, but that’s not the same thing. The Book of Psalms frequently uses symbolic (poetic) language, creating images that arouse our emotions and engage our imaginations.
Symbols are things that represent other things. Christmas cards provide good examples. We see a crèche and think of the baby Jesus, “asleep on the hay.” We see an odd-shaped star and think of the wise men.
Our Scripture for today is primarily the story of the wise men, so it is more appropriate for Epiphany than for Christmas. We’ll most likely revisit it during Epiphany to talk about the magi, but today let’s concentrate on the other major figure in the story—Herod.
If this story was set as an old-fashioned melodrama, whenever Herod came onstage the audience would boo. He might respond by sneering or making some threatening gesture. This is not to make light of his wicked deeds, but to create a symbolic picture.
Herod himself is a symbol. He stands for everything evil in this story. In the same way that the serpent represents evil in the story of Adam and Eve, Herod is the evil figure in the Christmas story. Everyone else we meet is good. Joseph is “just.” Mary is virtuous. Zechariah and Elizabeth are “righteous before the Lord.” The shepherds are honest workmen, doing their job, taking care of the sheep. The wise men are likely priests of a monotheistic Middle Eastern religion. Only Herod stands out as evil. He becomes the symbol for wickedness.
There is no doubt that he earned his title. He was not a Jew by birth. His family was from Edom, an area of the Middle East which is mentioned several times in the Hebrew Scriptures. His father converted to Judaism, so Herod was raised as a Jew, but he lacked the credentials to sit on the throne of David. He was appointed king by Rome. Therefore, he could rule as long as he kept the peace and pleased his Roman masters.
Like Rome itself, Herod kept the peace by force rather than by caring for his subjects. He has been described as being both depressive and paranoiac. His actions bear this out. He was especially nervous when it came to possible successors. He executed anyone he felt was a threat, including his sons. If you worried Herod your days were numbered.
Although claiming to be a Jew, he lived a lavish lifestyle unencumbered by obedience to Jewish law. He ran afoul of the Jewish leaders, especially the Pharisees, whose slavish devotion to the law later earned them Jesus’ most damning criticism. Still, everyone had to be cautious of complaining too loudly or too much.
It is Herod’s behavior in today’s Scripture that earns him his place as the evil entity in the Christmas story. He tells the wise men to report back to him when they have found the child. Although Matthew doesn’t tell us this, it should be obvious that Herod’s intent is to eliminate a rival. When his plans are thwarted by the wise men’s dream-warning, he retaliates by slaying all the babies in the Bethlehem region. This “slaughter of the innocents” is pure wickedness.
From the beginning evil has always been present in creation. We don’t know why, or how, but we know evil exists. Herod is one of a long line of evil persons in the march of history. He wasn’t the first, and won’t be the last. We have not seen the end of evil. That will not occur until Jesus Christ returns. Until then, we have to acknowledge the presence of Herod-like figures in our midst, and limit their effectiveness by doing everything we can to bring God’s kingdom to fruition.