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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.

Jared Ayers

Jared Ayers and Monica, his wife, moved to Philadelphia in 2008 to start the Liberti Church, where Jared serves as founding and senior minister. He loves calling Philly home. They’ve been graced with two sons and a daughter.

8 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Excellent, and delighted to have you writing here.

  • mstair says:

    This may be why in part …
    “Christmas Village,” featuring Christmas trees, artisan gifts, mulled wine, and wintertime snacks set up camp around City Hall during the month of December.

    traditional “yuletide” accouterments do not directly answer the problems of – tear-gassed children, heroin encampments, aching loneliness, staggering poverty, brutal violence. These ARE our days.

    Grateful for the reminder that we, taking the real Christ (not the romantic myth) into the lives of our neighbors, is our calling in advent and all seasons

    • Kent says:

      Amen, mstair. Amen.

    • Jessica A Groen says:

      Yes, so true.

      Here are the History, Tradition and Vision statements of the Chicagoan-treasured Christkindlmarket (now with additional locations in Naperville and Milwaukee): “The Christkindlmarket Chicago brings a cherished German and European tradition with international flair and local charm to Chicago. Chicago’s largest open-air Christmas festival is an enchanting and inviting holiday village nestled in the center of the city’s downtown. Inspired by the 16th century Christkindlesmarkt in Nuremberg, Germany, one of the first holiday markets of its kind, the Christkindlmarket is well-known for its vendors’ high quality gifts and food, holiday cheer, and for being the ideal place for families to create their own holiday traditions. Chicago’s Christkindlmarket was first conceptualized in 1995. The German American Chamber of Commerce of the Midwest Inc. (GACC Midwest) was seeking alternative ways to promote bilateral trade between the USA and Germany. Peter Flatzek, former Vice President of GACC Midwest, and Ray Lotter, then Manager of Commercial Services for GACC Midwest, initiated the partnership with city officials of Nuremberg, Germany. Mr. Lotter invited companies from Germany and the Chicago area to participate in the first Christkindlmarket Chicago in 1996. The market was an instant success and continues to flourish through the work of GACC Midwest’s subsidiary, German American Events, LLC.”

      Mother Mary’s political take on the cause for Christmas cheer is this: reversal-of-fortune. And her take continues to be discomfiting for any Herod, as well as for any of us well-fed, pocket-lined Herodashians who regard the Market as the primary go-to source for picking up some Adventy good tidings of great joy. “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

  • Matt Huisman says:

    You suggest Jesus is irrelevant to the world (Frosty) because the church is not properly confronting the evils of Herod. But all that really means is that you want a better Herod – a false god with no power to save me from my sin. In the actual “days of Herod” – considerably darker than today – the only political opinion Jesus offered was “pay your taxes”.

  • James Hart Brumm says:

    Excellent piece. Thank you.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Jared, for a fresh new voice. I must say, though, that in every age there have been Christian voices that have truly cried out that we are in the very end of time (the days of Herod). And they have prayed, Come, Lord Jesus. And if there is a comment in return it’s, not yet. Keep watching. It’s in such settings that Frosty, Santa Claus, and baby Jesus bring a measure of joy. Thanks, Jared.

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