If you stop with the visit of the Magi on this second Sunday of Christmas, you’ve got a beautiful story of love and peace and hope. The problem, of course, is that the story doesn’t end there. What follows doesn’t get put on greeting cards or acted out in pageants: Joseph bolting upright, awakening from his dream, and reaching over to shake Mary; cramming their few possessions into a sack, his ears alert for sounds of troops moving through the town or voices shouting; Mary bent over the baby, desperately trying to keep him quiet as Joseph leads the donkey bearing the two of them out of the city, both of them looking over their shoulders; and not long after, the scene of soldiers wielding torches and spears, kicking in doors and snatching other infant boys away from their screaming mothers.
Not everyone responds to the Christmas story with joy. Herod knows that this baby could give him real problems. And he knows that there are very effective ways for solving those problems before they start. Herod was quite skilled at maintaining favor in the eyes of Rome; he had benefited from numerous "accidents" that had befallen those whom he thought might threaten his hold on the throne, including his wife, his brother, and three sons. So he had no intention of simply standing by and letting this child attract a following of malcontents and enemies that could threaten him. He tries to trick the wise men seeking "the child born king of the Jews" into agreeing to seek out the child and then return to him so that he can come "pay homage", too.
But an angel clues the wise men in to what Herod is doing, and they go back home without returning to him. That would be a great ending: the wicked king sitting in his palace, waiting to go kill the child, and finally realizing too late that he’s been duped and won’t be able to find Jesus. The wise men get away; Jesus gets away; everybody’s okay. But that isn’t what happens; the story keeps going. Since he can’t eliminate the actual threat, Herod takes the next logical step: he decides to eliminate all the potential threats; he slaughters every male child in and around Bethlehem under the age of two.
For Herod, it’s an obvious choice, particularly since he’s not only been challenged, he’s been made to look foolish by those silly wise men. He has to show the people who’s in charge. For Herod, it’s simply business as usual; it’s how the world works. And yet it is an ugly, awful story, and there is the real temptation to edit it out of the Christmas narrative. Why do we need to bring such a dark note into the beauty of Christmas? Do we really need to remember it? Amongst the Gospel writers, only Matthew brings it up, but even he treads very carefully as he preserves this story. He does point out that Herod’s atrocity fulfilled Jeremiah’s prophecy of inconsolable grief arising from a mother robbed of her children.
Herod’s slaughter did fulfill that prophecy, and later kings, rulers, and nations have continued his work. Perhaps the only thing that’s surprising is how unremarkable this story is. How often have we seen this prophecy fulfilled throughout history? How often have we heard that sound of inconsolable grief rising up from those whose children are no more?
We’ve all heard those stories; we all know the staggering numbers of innocents slaughtered in so many places and times including our own. Atrocities such as these may differ in size or scope or intensity; they may be written large in the history books or forgotten by everyone but those who still mourn, yet each of them has points in common. Each of them is an attempt to ensure that injustice and hatred and death continue to determine how the world works. In a very real way, each of them is an incarnation, an embodiment of the fear, hatred, and desire for vengeance that the perpetrators have for the victims.
It is easy to forget that the meaning of Christmas is not a feeling that people share but an incarnation of God’s grace and love and faithfulness, of God’s very being. And in some ways, this story of the aftermath of Christmas is one of the most important ones of the Christmas narrative. It reminds us that God’s incarnation in Christ is not simply a peaceful, joyful, beautiful event to be celebrated once a year. It is more than a generic hope for peace on earth, goodwill towards all, a reason for temporary truces between soldiers and fleeting generosity from people in the streets. God’s incarnation in Christ is a challenge to all the incarnations of fear and hatred and desires for power and vengeance that want to run the world. It shakes the world to its foundations; it signifies the beginning of a new age that will recreate and transform the way the world works.
From the very beginning, those who wield power in this world resist the intrusion of God into the way the world works; they respond to Jesus with resistance and aggression and violence. The Christ child does not get to stay in his manger, sleeping peacefully, accepting gifts and praises, he begins life as a refugee fleeing from a genocide. From the very beginning of Jesus’ life on earth, the darkness sought to blot out the light of his presence and from the very beginning, the light of the Christmas star also casts the shadow of the cross into the world, but the darkness fails: Herod cannot eliminate God’s presence or foil God’s plan to change how the world works. Herod, like all incarnations of hate, dies, and the story continues after he’s gone. The journey that begins with the midnight escape from Herod keeps going, first to Egypt, then Nazareth, then across Galilee to Jerusalem, the cross, the empty tomb, and across the face of the earth.
The aftermath of Christmas is how the implications of God’s incarnation begin to reverberate in the world. That’s why it’s so tempting to end the story there, to avoid turning the page from peace and joy to suffering and fear. And yet to avoid turning the page misses the whole point of Christmas. We are living in a world that often sees God’s kingdom of justice, mercy, and peace as a threat to be resisted rather than a blessing to be embraced. We are living in a world that has people who still massacre the innocent in order to further their agenda. And we are living in a world that, despite everything that is broken and warped and contrary to the way God wants it, God loves. God loves it so much that God is unwilling to reject it or leave it alone. God was willing to drop down in the midst of it and become one of us in Christ, willing to take the world’s best shot at resisting him, willing to go through opposition and innocent suffering and even death so that we could have what God has always intended for us: life, real life, life in real relationship with God and one another through Christ.