When the Magi came from the East sometime after Jesus' birth, their arrival stirred panic for the establishment. These wise sages of a distant land came with enquiring hearts asking, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him." Their intent for homage caused disturbance amongst the streets of Jerusalem, and not only for the Jewish stock but more notably their self-imposed Lord and King - Herod the Great.
Herod's rise to kingship was notable and he'd quickly shown himself as a master builder of his time with many of his achievements featuring heavily as the back drop to events in the New Testament. He was born in the 70s BC from an Idumean family and along with his father, Antipater, had shown great commitment to Rome. The family’s loyalty and connections allowed Herod to receive a governorship in Galilee at the age of twenty-five, but then after his father’s assassination, he fled the land returning to Rome, where he was officially crowned king of Judea. Returning back in 39 BC, he eventually regained control of the land and ruled there for the next 33 years.
Herod was a jealous and some might say, insecure ruler. He feared for his kingship and ruled by power and coercion. So when this threat to his position came to his attention by the Magi he was intent on destroying it. He was the king of Jews - there would be no other.
The Jews lived under his rule and yielded taxes to Caesar in return for the permission of remaining in their homeland with certain freedoms. Yet they lived with a yearning for the Messiah to come, a deliverer who would set them free. This idea of freedom ran at the heart of the Jewish story and lived on from one generation to the next captured in the traditions it carried and the messages it told. As a people they had celebrated freedom from the Egyptians some two millennia before and romanticized the idea that deliverance would come again - that a new Moses would come forth.
In the Empire even the slightest idea of an uprising - the potential of a saviour coming to silence the dominance of Rome was treated with both immediacy and permanence. Honour the Caesar and all will go well with you, defy him; well they invented a very nasty way of dealing with the rebellious – they called it crucifixion.
Not that you had to reach adulthood if you were perceived as a threat – the Empire would search you out much sooner if needed. And so the Magi who’d informed Herod of the star and the baby slipped out by the back door and left him fuming with rage once he realised. He commissioned his soldiers to make an extensive search of Bethlehem and kill every baby boy under the age of two leaving a community bewildered and grief stricken by his brutality.
Yet beneath the savagery, politics and tyranny another story was being born. One that was wrapped in mystery and humility, foretold in prophecy and protected by angels and dreams. There are in fact few texts that speak of the birth of Christ, yet those which do carry both weight and wonder. They speak a message that is counter culture and intentionally subversive in the manner through which the person of God will come into the world.
Perhaps it’s their scarcity that makes them more poignant, as if God had considered that a ‘less is more’ approach to the birth in Bethlehem would draw us to a place of awe and wonder – rather like those Magi after their one thousand two-hundred-mile trip from Iraq. But for those of us engaging with the story some two thousand years later a further threat does exist that can twist the plot of Christmas and deliver what might simply be a cold turkey - it's called sentiment.
For many the sincerity of the story has given way to the sentiment of the nativity in the manner in which the Christmas message is handled. Of course we all love to watch the nativities; to hear the simple songs that brings us again to a retelling of the old. Yet there is danger here. A genuine risk that the stark power of this teenage virgin giving birth to the Christ child could be lost.
This for me is why the nativity should always be set in the context of prophecy, history and eternity. The story is spoken to us embryonically over half a millennia before it is fulfilled. The prophets of old had voices that could not be silenced when it came to speaking out about the future and of what would come to pass as Isaiah reminds us:
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
But it's not only what the prophets said that gives our nativity bite. It's what the gospels portray too that matters. History flows through the story weaving together a narrative that presents characters who lived with both geography and chemistry. Herod, that previously mentioned psychotic ruler of Judea was a mad, cruel, egotistical tyrant. His reign places our story in history – both in time and place. We know much about him from the historians of the day who speak of both his brutality and brilliance, his desire to appease his people on the one hand and silence them harshly on the other.
We all know of the fear that tyranny can bring. Bethlehem is a blood bath of brutality. The prophets speak into history their voices carrying the pain of nursing mothers whose grief cannot be silenced, like these words from Jeremiah.
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”
But the dream is not lost and the angel speaks and the Christ child is quietly removed to the safety of Egypt, a trip paid for by the gold slipped into the manger by the Magi who offered such after their nomadic journey from the East.
So protected and living as a refugee in a foreign land the Christ child waits. The promise lingers but cannot be silenced.
And the story lives on.
It has to live on and will live on because it cannot be crushed. It lives on in time and carries hope into eternity. The baby’s birth in the small town of Bethlehem carries hope to our world today - for you, and me. And this matters - it matters more than we could ever grasp. For here in the story light breaks forth into the darkness. As the gospel writers speak, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."
This impenetrable light is what lies at the heart of Christmas. It's what lies at the heart of creation itself. It is this light that can enter the darkness of our souls and bring light and love and peace. Here the Christ child comes to us and becomes one with us. He identifies with our fears, sees our failings and reaches out to us.
And this is it. He reaches out to us. Complexity may surround; fear may try to overwhelm; despair may seek to overtake us - but he reaches out to us. Here is where the story takes a twist - contextualized as it is in the dusty streets of Palestine, nevertheless it reaches into the souls of each one of us today. The eternal longing, the divine itch, the inseparable search for hope and truth comes close by. Silently the wondrous gift is given and silently it drifts on by.
Unless you, and I and us - unless we the intended recipients of the promise reach out too. Not to give but receive. Not to fight for an inheritance that was never ours - but to enter into the fulfilment of the Divine plan - a plan that had been kept hidden for ages and generations but is now revealed in Christ - and, if you dare to believe it, is fulfilled in each one of us today.
For me, this is why the nativity still has power; why the carols still carry mystery and why the message of Christmas is so compelling. It’s not because I can read about it, but rather because I am invited to be part of it.