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Around the corner from the church I serve in downtown Philadelphia sits City Hall. Its stately Second-Empire architecture looms over Penn Square, set at the very center of the city.
Several years ago, I watched a predictable culture war play out on its plaza. For years, an outdoor market called “Christmas Village,” featuring Christmas trees, artisan gifts, mulled wine, and wintertime snacks set up camp around City Hall during the month of December. But one year, in an effort to advertise more widely to those who don’t observe Christmas, the city decided to re-brand it as a “Holiday Village.”
Unoriginal outrage in local and national media ensued.
“This is one more case of the war on Christmas!” “We need to put the Christ back into Christmas!”
I share the concern for a more robust experience of the Christmas Gospel. But I have a different proposal from the one shouted into cameras that December.
I think, actually, that we need to put the Herod back into Christmas.
Herod the Great
This Advent, I’ll reflect Sunday by Sunday on several of the characters who surround the infant Jesus in St. Luke’s Gospel. Today, I want to begin where Luke does: with Herod. The unfolding events of Jesus birth unfold “in the days of King Herod of Judea” (Luke 1.5).
In his The Birth of the Messiah, Raymond Brown pictures a Herod who’s remarkable. Herod ruled Palestine on behalf of the Roman empire, and rule he did: he built palaces and fortresses, ports and temples and fortified walls. In his own lifetime he was the richest man in the world.
Herod was also renowned, even at a brutal time, in a brutal empire, for his casual brutality. Twice when he had to be away on dangerous political business, he arranged with a confidante that if for any reason he failed to return, his favorite wife, Mariamne (he had 10 wives) was to be killed–he couldn’t stand to think of anyone else having her. He returned safely both times, so the order was never carried out. But, he later killed her anyway. He also killed his uncle Joseph, his mother-in-law Alexandra, and three of his sons: Aristobulus, Alexander, and Antipater. Emperor Augustus himself famously half- joked that “It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son.” To ensure there’d be weeping across the land when he died, he ordered the arrest of Jewish leaders from a number of villages across Palestine, with instructions to have them killed as soon as he died–that way there’d be tears at the time of his end. Fortunately, his orders were never carried out.
The story of Jesus takes place across the backdrop of Herod’s world. It’s about God breaking into Herod’s world, arriving in a world of blood, tears, empty bellies, tight-fisted greed, darkness and death.
His Looming Presence Today
Most of my friends and neighbors in Philadelphia wonder this time of year how any college-educated adult in the 21st century can take Jesus of Nazareth any more seriously than Frosty the Snowman. I think the looming presence of Herod is one reason why.
The “days of Herod” are the days we live in, too: the days of tear-gassed children, heroin encampments, aching loneliness, staggering poverty, brutal violence. These are our days. These are the days of Advent. As Karl Barth said, “What other time or season can or will the Church ever have but that of Advent!” (Church Dogmatics, IV / 3.1)
Almighty God arriving among us in Herod days–in days like our days–this is good news of great joy, for all people.