I love the Christmas story. Despite Santa Claus and his mountains of tinsel and useless junk, I still love the Christmas story.
I love it partly because I think it’s important to remember the stories that define us as a culture. White Western society doesn’t really have ancient mythology going back tens of thousands of years to give us a sense of belonging to the world and to our own culture, but our obsession with progress and the process of secularisation are helping us to forget what culture we do have.
Or maybe we always forgot it. Because while a historical trait of European society has been the colonisation and exploitation of the rest of the word and the building of empires, the Christmas story is one of a very different kind of king.
You probably know the story well enough that I don’t have to go over it in detail. It’s the story of God appearing on Earth, but there’s a few twists in the tail. In the outskirts of the Roman empire, a baby is conceived out of wedlock to a Jewish couple. Due to an order from the Roman rulers, the parents are forced to have the baby away from home. Forced to give birth in a stable rather than in a room, the unglamorous birth is attended by lowly shepherds while the social and religious elite are completely unaware. No Woman’s Day exclusive photoshoot, and no grand divine act to announce to the world that God had become incarnate. No, the Christmas story is about a couple being shunted this way and that by people with more power than them, ignored and outcast. It’s the ultimate statement of what the glory of God really looks like.
And then there’s the “Magi from the East” (aka “wise men”), which brings me to why I’m writing this. It’s mostly forgotten now that Santa Claus and Westfield have bought Christmas, but for a long time in christian tradition, the story of Herod and the Magi (you know, between where Mary and Joseph brave the Christmas shopping rush and where they get a bargain at the boxing day sales) was remembered on the 28th of December as the Feast of the Holy Innocents.
This is one of my favourite parts of the Christmas story. Even Yoda wrote a Christmas carol about it (if you didn’t get that, don’t worry). While all the rich and powerful of Jerusalem and Rome are ignoring the birth of Jesus, three men in the East see a star that tells them something significant has happened. If you’re paying attention you find out these things. They travel West to see who has been born, bringing gifts. But when the get to Judea and ask the king Herod if he knows about it, he says no. He’d sure like to though.
The magi keep going, eventually finding the baby Jesus. In a dream they are told not to go back to Herod, so they return a different way. Herod responds with tyrannical rage, ordering the death of every child in Bethlehem under two years of age. Jesus survives because in another dream, his father is told to flee to Egypt. Like I heard a friend of mine say the other day, lucky they didn’t try to come to Australia.
This is an interesting part of the story because this is where a line gets drawn. While the manger birth shows Jesus being ignored and forgotten, the story of Herod is the first of many instances of Jesus being considered a direct threat by those in power. One that needs to be wiped out by any means necessary.
Jesus is rarely a neutral figure. He might have been called the Prince of Peace, but he also said “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law — a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’” (Matthew 10:34-36, quoting Micah 7.) The kingdom of God – of love, service and justice, is in direct opposition to the kingdoms of humanity – of money, power and violence.
This is what the magi learn in this story. While the Feast of the Holy Innocents traditionally remembers the slaughtered children as the first martyrs of christianity, it should also remember the three magi as the first christians to commit civil disobedience in standing up for what’s right. And also King Herod as neither the first nor the last person who succumbed to the temptations of power, and the slippery slope it leads to.
So tomorrow, on the Feast of the Holy Innocents, I hope we can remember all those innocent people around the world whose lives have been lost. In war, from Afghanistan and Iraq to Syria and Southern Sudan. In poverty, that so often the greediness and exploitation of the (Christian) Western world has helped to create. In oppressive regimes, from West Papua to Palestine to North Korea and all over the world, where the role of Herod is played out again and again.
I hope we also remember the magi and their courageous actions. It’s the duty of all of us to stand up against injustice wherever we see it, from our neighbourhoods to the corridors of power. Every act of love and resistance is a step towards creating a better world, but can also act as an inspiration to others – an invitation to join the glorious struggle that is pursuing true justice in our own lives and in our world.
And I hope we remember Herod, the despot king, who at another time (recorded in history but not in the bible), killed his own wife and two sons. We all are constantly faced with with temptations or compromises that will give us that little bit of extra power, wealth or recognition. Most of us like to think we would never order the mass killing of children, but I think history shows us that by the time you do get that kind of power, there’s no turning back. Part of the Christmas story that shouldn’t be forgotten is the warning for us to be less like Herod, and more like Jesus, who said:
“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:24-27)