In his famous Christmas Oratorio, the poet W.H. Auden describes the post-Christmas let-down this way:
~from the poet W.H. Auden’s Christmas Oratorio, “For The Time Being”
“Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes —
Some have got broken — and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week —
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted — quite unsuccessfully —
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility…We look round for something, no matter what, to inhibit
Our self-reflection…in the meantime
There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
What a strange thing to step into a pulpit on Epiphany Sunday and attempt to preach a text about magi who came from the East, most likely ancient Persia, which today we would call Iran—while we watch contemporary news playing out in our own country’s foreign policy with Iran. The Epiphany story is partly about how a group of foreigners (learned people, perhaps Zoroastrian priests) recognizes something true about how God is at work in the world before we do, while in the background the powers that be (propped up by self-serving religious leadership) are plotting against that divine presence. I had originally planned to focus this sermon on the magi, these wise ones, and how our culture is long on the accumulation of knowledge and information and short on the pursuit of wisdom. And how the magi can be our inspiration for cultivating the wisdom necessary to find Christ in our time. It turns out you can have the best intelligence in the world and still not know how to use it wisely.
But in light of developing events, I want to focus on King Herod—that dangerous political leader who fears he is losing his grip on the throne and is willing to resort to violence to keep it. For Christians who grew up on The Christmas Story, the name “Herod” is practically synonymous with evil. It is reported that the Roman emperor Augustus once said that he would “rather be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.” This is because toward the end of his rule, Herod had one of his wives and two sons killed when he became suspicious that they were out to get him. A “reign of terror” characterized the end of Herod’s life, when he became intensely jealous and insecure and was willing to kill his own family to keep his power and kingdom intact. The slaughter of the innocent baby boys in Bethlehem is not confirmed in ancient historical records outside the Bible; that is, we’re not sure it really happened, but it would be consistent with Herod’s m.o. at the time.
But it hadn’t always been this way. Herod the Great is also known for sponsoring the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and was praised by many rabbis of the time for his beautiful creation. He had brought peace, security and stability to the region, as well as economic growth and new infrastructure. For a Roman client king, he really was kind of great at some things. That is until he became intensely jealous and insecure about his place in the kingdom, even to the point of slaughtering innocent people just to be sure that he had rooted out and destroyed every possible threat, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, to his power. He reminds me of Al Pacino at the end of Godfather II; he’s had so many people “whacked” in the name of protecting The Family that he has lost his family in the process.
Like movies and life, bible stories are much easier to understand when we can divide the good guys from the bad. And our natural tendency, of course, is to imagine that we are like the good characters in the story. But life is not binary, and neither are we. We may not be vassal kings, but like Herod, our human tendency is to shore up our own power and security by nullifying anything that threatens it, whether that means defeating the enemy, wiping out the competition, silencing all the critics. We all do it–in small ways in our own psyches and in massive ways around the globe. And in the process, we also inevitably destroy much of the potential for new life and goodness among us.
Sometimes we believe much more in destruction and elimination than in transformation. Another way to say this is that we have a love affair with violence in this country. But by this I don’t mean that we like to see it in our movies or watch it in sports, however tangentially related those things might be. What I mean is that we believe violence (be it physical, political, social, spiritual, emotional or verbal) works, that it actually does work to solve our problems. We believe in it so much that we are willing to sacrifice innocents rather than make necessary changes in ourselves.
Is it because we doubt our own ability to change, or we doubt the ability of others to change, and we doubt our ability to make change in the world. Perhaps it is something deep and primal—what the writer of Hebrews suggests, that we are those whose lives are “held in slavery (sometimes consciously, other times subconsciously) by the fear of death;” therefore we act primarily out of self-preservation.
But the Good News is that Christmas keeps coming, and transformation is still possible, that is—a transcendent God becomes a flesh-and-blood man, an unwed teenager is transformed into the mother of God, an average carpenter into the caretaker of divinity, and a tiny babe into the Prince of Peace. In the process, though, this earth-shattering transformative event screams out to us with an unavoidable question: What innocents have we slaughtered for our own self-preservation?
On the small scale~have their been friendships lost b/c no one can say I’m sorry, relationships lost b/c there is no room for compromise?
On a large scale~how can we read this text and not think of the literal massacre of innocent children by gun violence in Newtown, or Parkland, or…?
And this week, whatever your views on foreign policy, how can we not think of all the innocents who will die if we go to war with Iran—soldiers and civilians on all sides of the conflict?
The gift of the Christ-child is the beautiful miracle of incarnation, and it is also the dark side of the Christmas story, where the Prince of Peace disrupts our violent world and asks us to beat our swords into plowshares, to forgive our enemies, to resist the powers, to overcome evil with good, to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves, and all the things we give lip-service to, but find it difficult to incarnate. The little baby is not as sweet and consoling as we thought…but it is still Good News!
It is Good News because transformation IS possible, and to experience it we do not even have to assassinate the Herod within. This would simply be recapitulating the old way. The only way to cast out the fear that is at the root of most of our violent impulses is to love it to death. We cannot kill the Herod within; we can only dedicate our lives to birthing something knew. With compassion for our own fears and insecurities, we can begin to nurture the impulses for peace within ourselves and our communities.
~ from “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” (words by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)
And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
If nothing else, Christmas is a season of hope. Hope in knowing that Emmanuel-God is with us, offering us the promise that, in the end, the way of peace will conquer the ways of death.