There’s something about the way we currently celebrate the Christmas season that invites people to forget – or, worse, ignore - why Jesus was born in the first place. It has to do with the way that we extract the good news from its setting in normal life. The way we treat the story told by Matthew and Luke, covering it with snowflakes and tinsel and surrounding it with a moat of eggnog, turns it all into a fairy tale and makes it seem “once upon a time”. To someone like Luke it was news – dateline: Bethlehem, in the days of Caesar Augustus, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. We also take that one part of the gospel and treat it as a stand-alone event, when it represents the account of the beginning of a life that included a whole lot more.
Miss that and you miss the true power of a proclamation that has to do with you and me. This happened; so what are you going to do about it? Or maybe that’s why we do such a good job of distancing ourselves from the grittiness of the stable – it leaves us off the hook from the deeper questions about why this baby was even born.
The example I use is a nativity scene that I’ve seen in multiple settings. It’s put out by “Precious Moments” and all the figures are cute. There’s a cute little Mary and a cute Joseph, both of them looking like third-graders in a Christmas pageant. Ditto for the shepherds. The angels are cutest of all. Everything is in pastel colors, of course. Got the picture? Now, imagine, if you will, a Precious Moments crucifix. You can’t do it, can you? Not without a sense of sacrilege. That should tell you something.
The birth of Jesus is not a sentimental moment. It’s a profound matter that changes everything and is a threat to business as usual. It’s so much of a threat that the powers-that-be try to put an end to it, precisely because it shows them to be powers-that-aren’t.
Herod tried to put an end to Jesus in a direct way, as his son (also named Herod) would help Pilate and the Romans and the religious authorities to do again about three decades later.
“And he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.” [Matthew 2:16]
That was the real war on Christmas. It had nothing to do with the wording on a Starbucks cup. It was a brutal attempt to kill the Messiah before he had even learned to walk. It didn’t work, because God gave a warning to the wise men and to Joseph: “Scatter! Now!”
“Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” [Matthew 2:13]
That saved Jesus’ life. The time would come for him to die, like all people, but not then and not that way.
In the course of this confrontation, innocent children died. The Herods of history are notorious for that. How many children died in Aleppo this year? How many, in fact, were in hospitals specifically targeted for bombing? How many children in Flint, Michigan were damaged by lead contamination that was caused by the conscious choice to cut resources for public utilities like water? How many boys are sent to war as soldiers or girls are caught up in human trafficking? How often does a modern Herod drag a child into the narcotics trade to addict yet other children? And all for what? So that Herod can stay in power and do it all over again because that fear of losing power is stronger in him than respect for an innocent child’s life. Make that a village of children. No, make that a world of them.
The gifts of the wise men, given to Jesus, speak to the way that God handles a world of Herods, because we all have some of him in us. Traditionally, these gifts are seen as honoring three aspects of Jesus’ mission that Herod is bound to find threatening, with each gift offering hope to the weak and to those that he and his successors would intimidate and control.
Gold. Wealth is what so much of the world spends its whole life scrambling to get and keep. It’s what oil companies use to buy politicians’ silence about climate change, and it’s why they do it. It’s what leads people to turn a blind eye to corruption of all types. The wise men gave it to a poor baby instead.
“Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain,
Gold I bring to crown him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.”
It’s a recognition that our resources are at Jesus’ service. It’s a gift, if you will, of defiance because the money is going to Herod’s opposite, and (as Jesus himself would later observe)
“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
Frankincense. It was burned in ancient temples to honor the gods. Even today, in Catholic and Orthodox churches, it is used as a way of announcing the presence of the holy. Along those lines, one scholar of Roman liturgy writes,
When the wise men presented it to Jesus, they were saying that this child was holy, as God is holy. Sorry, Herod, but you don’t fall into that category. You don’t get to say what is right and what is wrong, especially since for you that generally is a matter of expedience. I remember a man, a devout Quaker who used to teach math at Penn Charter, commenting, “Honesty is not the best policy. It can never be just a policy. It’s a principle.”
Then there’s myrrh. That’s a perfume that was used for anointing a dead body. It recognizes that Jesus would confront death. Although he escaped it as a child, and would escape it again and again throughout his years on earth, those years would be numbered. One day, in fact, three women would find their way early in the morning, carrying spices (perhaps including myrrh) to treat his body for proper burial. The amazing thing would be that they would never get to use the spices, because his body would be gone. Jesus’ death would bring life, and his life would bring death to the old ways of fear and intimidation and hatred.
That means that the chief means of Herod’s control is no longer effective, at least for followers of the baby who escaped his clutches. One of those followers, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, was arrested two weeks ago for protesting the latest in a string of highly questionable moves by the governor and legislature of North Carolina. While in the Wake County jail, he wrote an open letter that began, “Dear King Herod,” and finished with these words:
“…as I watched Speaker Moore yesterday evening, I saw a sadness in his face that I suspect you too must have felt. Absolute power, they say, corrupts absolutely. But it also makes people lonely. It’s one thing to know you can get away with murder. But it’s something else to have to live with it.
You did all you could to kill the nonviolent revolution of love that was born in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, King Herod. And your heirs are doing all they can to abort the Moral Movement that is still a toddler in North Carolina today. But we celebrate Christmas because Jesus showed us that when a light shines in the darkness, the darkness cannot overcome it.
And that, my dear brother, gives me hope for you. The good news of Jesus is that there’s room for everyone on the winning side. I can pray for Speaker Moore and his colleagues, so enslaved by the grip of fear. We can love them and hope they will join us, even as we stand to insist that what they are doing is wrong.
And in the meantime, while the struggle continues, we can rejoice that we don’t have to suffer the loneliness that plagues our enemies. There’s good company over at the jail house. And at the state house here in NC. If you could, I’d love for you to join us.
 Monsignor Romano Guardini, cited in Matthew D. Herrera, “Holy Smoke: The Use of Incense in the Catholic Church” (Tixlini Scriptorium, 2011). https://www.scribd.com/doc/170397802/Holy-Smoke-The-Use-of-Incense-in-the-Catholic-Church
 Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, “Open Letter to King Herod: Why I Was Arrested at #NCGA” at Red Letter Christians (December 16, 2016). https://www.redletterchristians.org/open-letter-to-king-herod-why-i-was-arrested-at-ncga/