One of the characters in the Christmas story who doesn’t appear around Jesus’ crib is King Herod. Herod was a powerful and able ruler who had rebuilt the great temple in Jerusalem. Instead of being grateful, many of his subjects hated him because they lived constantly in fear of his displeasure, and no one likes to live in constant fear. Herod’s central goal in life was to remain in power. Incidentally, he did some good things and he did some bad things. In fact, he did whatever was necessary to remain in power, even killing those members of his own family who seemed to threaten his hold on power.
News of the birth of someone who might be a rival for his power moved King Herod to try to discover who the newborn king might be in order to destroy him. He sent three wealthy foreigners to Bethlehem and asked them to come back with the information he needed. When the three foreign wise men didn’t come back to him, he took steps to be sure all his future rivals were killed. The church celebrates the feast of the Holy Innocents on Dec. 28. To rescue the infant Jesus from Herod, St. Joseph took Mary and Jesus to a foreign land until Herod died (see Mt 2: 1-20).
In civil society, we celebrate birthdays. In the liturgical calendar, except for the birthdays of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist, we celebrate only the day of death. This is the day that determines how we shall live forever: either with God or in hatred of him. How did Herod die? We don’t know; but we do know he had to meet in death not only God but all those he had killed, including the Holy Innocents, who now surround the throne of God as they once, when living on earth, surrounded the crib of Christ. All Herod’s power didn’t serve him well as he lay dying.
If Herod’s life was upset by Jesus’ birth, so were the lives of the foreigners who found him with Mary, his mother. All that had served them to make a good life — their wealth, their position in society, their very wisdom — collapsed in the presence of an infant King without a kingdom in this world. After escaping from Herod’s schemes, what did they go back to? How did they die? In the liturgical calendar, we celebrate their meeting the infant Jesus on the Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord. Surely, they met him again in death.
Not only individuals die; so do ideas and whole civilizations. Some die well and hand on a contribution to civilization and human well-being; some die badly, in violent conflict and human disaster. Last Dec. 2, in Rome, Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev, the bishop in charge of foreign relations for the Patriarchate of Moscow, reflected on what the revitalized Russian Orthodox Church has to bring to the secular Europe now taking shape. Reflecting on the persecution of Orthodox Christianity in the now defunct Soviet Union, he said: “The church was always excluded from any possible contact with the life of society, the life which was, at the same time, ‘protected’ from any possible religious influence. Being a believer meant being a pariah. Personal religious convictions were to be kept hidden, and conversations on spiritual topics were to be avoided.”
“The processes taking place in Europe today are somewhat similar to those in the Soviet Union. In regards to religion, militant secularism is as dangerous as was militant atheism.” Archbishop Hilarion asked that the politicians in power in the Europe now being formed answer whether or not their Europe “is going to be home to diverse religions, thus becoming authentically inclusive and pluralistic.” Their answer would determine whether the Orthodox and other Christians could participate freely or would have to live in fear once again in their own homelands.
Whatever happened to Herod? He went wherever, here or elsewhere, power is an end in itself and where religion is feared as an alternative to a secular form of life that brooks no public rivals. Herod’s determination to hold on to power doesn’t change much from place to place or time to time. What changes people, and what might have changed even Herod had he encountered the infant Jesus, is conversion to God. Christmas is about a passing over to a new way of life for the world, a way of life where power is not the ultimate and only good. Christmas delineates the difference between despotism and freedom, between Herod, filled with fear and hatred, and Christ, who came to sacrifice himself for our salvation.
An encounter with God’s love incarnate in Jesus changes individual persons and the societies in which they work out their salvation. Where power is sought not for its own sake but to serve those whom God has given us to love, Herod disappears from the human story. While Herod seems not to have completely disappeared, we pray and should work so that his role will steadily decrease in the stories of our time. God bless you.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Francis Cardinal George, OMI
Archbishop of Chicago