by Naomi Hanvey
Tonight, as part of my annual holiday tradition, I watched the 1983 movie, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, for the umpteenth time. This movie, based on the book by Barbara Robinson, explores the story of a group of poor children who hear the Christmas story for the first time when they decide to take part in a church Christmas pageant. There's a lot about this story worth talking about - the classism and judgmental superiority of being shocked by poverty and its consequences, or the very depiction of the Herdmans, written to make suburban white readers in the 1970s gasp and shake their heads in dismay, but which kids today hardly bat an eye at because it's so familiar. But I'm not going to talk about that. I'm going to talk about something the Herdmans noticed when they heard the story of the nativity for the first time: where is Herod?
In the book, the Herdmans are really captivated by the role Herod plays in the Christmas story, attempting to manipulate the Magi into revealing Jesus' location so he can murder the child. In fact, in the book, they're so interested in Herod that they end up going to the library and doing research on the notorious life and reign of Herod the Great. They begin to plan a sequel to the Christmas pageant in which the Wise Men and Joseph get revenge on Herod, much to the dismay of the narrator's brother Charlie, who fears they are going to make him play Herod so they can beat him up.
It's kind of obvious why we don't usually see Herod in the Christmas story. We don't want to complicate the pure, sacred narrative with this subplot of murder and intrigue, right? The image of the nativity creche isn't quite as picturesque when you add a paranoid king slaughtering children in the periphery.
And yet, Matthew spends a significant portion of his nativity account focusing on Herod. And in fact, from both a narrative and a theological standpoint, Herod is essential to the story of Christmas.
A few of my friends have written wonderful things this season about the Magnificat, the song Mary sings when she visits her cousin Elizabeth while they are both miraculously pregnant. In it, Mary praises God for overturning the power structures that have kept people like her oppressed and downtrodden, celebrating the revolutionary new kingdom that God will usher in with the birth of God's Son - of her son. This, my friends have emphasized, is the good news of Christmas: the promise of liberation for the oppressed by God's conquering the oppressor.
What are these power structures? Who is the oppressor in the nativity story? Well at this point in time, it's Rome, of course, the occupying pagan government. But apart from Augustus ordering a census that sets the events of the story in motion, Rome is pretty absent from the narrative we read in the gospels. Instead, we see Herod as the story’s antagonist. Herod was a puppet ruler, subservient to Rome. The story of his rise to power is as convoluted and full of intrigue as is Octavian's - full of assassination plots, strategic marriages, and political maneuvering. Herod represents power at its worst, power that exists for no other purpose than to increase, and which will stop at nothing to maintain itself.
Herod became the tetrarch of a small chunk of Palestine called Judea. The whole region of Palestine seems to have been perennially problematic, constantly at war with whoever was occupying it at any given time (this was one of the reasons it was broken into separate jurisdictions under Roman rule). Herod's job, presumably, was to keep the Judeans from revolting against Rome - in other words, to maintain "law and order." Herod was Jewish (ish) himself, and he went to some great lengths to build good PR with his province by rebuilding and expanding the temple in Jerusalem. It was Roman policy to allow conquered peoples the right to practice their religious and cultural traditions. So really, all Herod had to do was to maintain the status quo.
It's into this situation that Mary proclaims:
"He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty." (Luke 1:51-53 ESV)
This describes a complete overturning of the status quo. Mary's song depicts God aggressively - dare I say, violently - tearing down existing power structures in order to lift up the humble and lowly. God is, in short, a revolutionary, the very opposite of what Herod represents.
Sometimes I think we mistake peace for the status quo. Especially for those of us whose lives are pretty good, who are neither poor nor oppressed, it's easy to think that "peace" simply means "the continuation of things as they are, without any interruption to myself." That's certainly what peace meant for Herod. And yet, as Mary's song indicates, the arrival of Jesus - the Prince of Peace - represents a direct threat to Herod and to everything he stands for. Herod probably didn't care if Jesus actually was the promised Messiah; it was enough for him that he might be seen as a Messiah, a figure for people to rally around and support over himself. Remember, as the instrument of Rome, Herod's power depended on keeping the Judeans in line, and the Judeans had a habit of rising up around charismatic leaders and revolting against the powers that be. Herod's job security depended on nothing changing in Judea - politically, economically, socially, or theologically - so this rumor needed to be squashed. And so Jesus had to die.
For those like Mary who do actually live in poverty, hunger, or oppression, peace means the opposite of the status quo. It means an end to things as they are so they can be as they ought to be. It means bringing down the people in power - not to put new people in power, but to replace the entire structure of power. Peace requires radical, absolute, irrevocable change, change that threatens the rich and the powerful and the comfortable.
This year, let's put Herod back in Christmas. Let's remember that there are people and forces in the world to whom Jesus is a threat, and who will do anything they can, often in the very name of "peace," to prevent him from enacting his radical agenda. But Jesus didn't come into the world so things could stay as they are; he came to turn the world upside-down. He came to bring true peace, the kind of peace Herod feared but Mary longed for. Let's take a hard look at the structures of power in our world that keep many people perpetually locked in powerlessness, in poverty, in hunger, in danger, in fear, in want - and let's enter into the work of Christ, which is to undo those structures. Let's be willing to risk losing the comfort that comes with maintaining our current way of life, in order to usher in the reign of peace foretold by Mary so long ago.
Merry Christmas, all.
About TCL Blog
We’re not about Dogma here. We’re just Christians who think the political and Christian right-wing have their priorities wrong.
Charles Toy is the founding member of The Christian Left. We're sure you will enjoy his passion as well as his wit. Guest bloggers featured often.