The villain of the piece. The one we don’t discuss much, the one we’d prefer to forget as he mars the sentimentality of the crib, the nostalgia of the manger scene. The one we do not celebrate, the one we gloss over, the one whose murderous impact scars the delicate picture of the peaceful, innocent, swaddling wrapped child and his beatific mother, along with his presumably bemused father.
The scheming, power-crazed, adulterous, heretical, homicidal maniac.
He doesn’t fit the snow flecked, starlit Christmas card image we’re all achingly familiar with. He’s not the one we’d like to contemplate whilst we genuflect at this year’s John Lewis advert – or heaven forbid, last year’s lovesick imaginary penguin!
Damn him, but of all the characters in the Christmas story he’s the one I’m most like.
I’m not the wise type, not a seeker of truth who would leave home and habit to try to find meaning in a foreign land, a foreign culture, a foreign way of thinking and believing.
Nor am I a shepherd, an outdoors working type, who would hear angelic voices and look for the promises contained in their song – I would not leave my livelihood and my security for a song … nor for a promise.
I am, like Herod, just the sort to resort to lies and conniving, to deceit and dishonour – anything to stay in control, to maintain my position, to ensure that I remain as the master of my own destiny, the captain of my own ship.
I am, like Herod, just the sort to try to convince the wise that I was like them – all the while attempting to destroy the hope that they proclaim as it threatened my authority, my comfort, my influence and my life.
I am, like Herod, just the type that would try to preserve the relationships I had with the powers that be, I would continue to collaborate with the rulers and oppressors of my people, as long as they would guarantee my continued regal excesses.
I am, like Herod, warped enough that I would plot and scheme to the point of ruining the lives of those around me – or even of those I am supposed to lead and protect – so that I could sustain my addled belief that I am the most important person in my paltry world.
I am, just like Herod in the story, a person who would do everything I could to hinder the rise of a real, true and rightful king – someone whose claims to power, authority and lordship rested not in militaristic power, the slyness of politicians and the corruption of religion but rather in the simplicity of hope, family, love and new life.
And, just like Herod, I might well recognise that in this fulfilment of a generations old promise, and in the face of this new, real, and inspired life I would lose everything that I had lied, cheated, plotted, conspired and (metaphorically) murdered to gain.
Like Herod, way back then, I understand that if this prophesied child is really real, then my game is well and truly up.
And in the painfully bright illumination of this, I too might try to ‘murder’ my way to safety, to kill the promise whilst it lay helpless in a manger, to destroy hope before it could take its first steps, to silence hope before its first words, to climb back into my throne over the bodies of those I hate, those I devalue and dehumanise, those I fear, those who show the depths of the shadows in me, those who show me for exactly who I am …
… I did not live that first Christmas story as Herod did, and I know that the story lived long after Herod’s own death, and that the helpless child he feared grew into a man who caused as much, if not more consternation, for not just the kings and rulers of his own age, but for every age since.
I can see that this ‘helpless’ babe brought Herod and his kingdom low. Herod’s dynasty is long since consigned to history, along with the collaborators and corrupt structures that connived alongside it, and the ravenous empire that maintained it all through oppression, aggression and fear.
I see that this same baby still does the same – as every day the empires I try to build, the corruption I foster and maintain, the promises I poison and break are challenged by the simplicity of love, of life, of hope. And so, unlike Herod, rather than seize hold of my insignificance empire with a throttling grip, I’ll consciously let the child of hope live.
Unlike Herod, I live knowing that as much as I try to ignore it, as much as I try to deny it with my thoughts, words, attitudes and actions, this child was born – hope came wrapped in the needy flesh of a baby.
Unlike Herod, I see – in brief insights and moments of fleeting clarity – that although it has often felt as though I have had to care for this needy hope, this tiny fragile, weak and weedy promise as though it was a literal babe in my tired and aching arms – that this hope grows.
I know, unlike Herod, that this hope continues to grow as you care about it, feed it, live with it – until, like my own sons, it grows to be bigger than I am, able to pick me up and carry (even against my wishes!) and to be the better part of me living in its own strength and not relying on mine.
I know that – as much as I feel I am like him when I read this story sometimes – I am not Herod.
I don’t follow him.
I follow the other guy … I follow that baby in the manger … I follow hope.