But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, Saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child’s life (St. Matthew 2:19-20).
King Herod was an especially nasty character. He is called “Herod the Great” by historians, not because of his moral achievements, but because he was quite willing to use any means at his disposal to maintain his kingship of Judea. He lavished great sums of money on building projects, including the rebuilding of the Temple: a sly effort to win over the religiously zealous. But, he specialized in killing anyone who got in his way, including his uncle, his mother-in-law, and three of his own children, so that even they could not succeed him as king. He even killed his favorite wife, Mariamne, because he suspected infidelity, but I suppose with his nine other wives he thought back-ups were available. That said, the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, which we observed in particular last Saturday in the Church’s calendar, was only one of the many massacres that Herod commanded during his bloody reign. In fact, his very last action on earth was a massacre. He called his nobles to his deathbed, and once they were gathered together, he ordered his soldiers to kill every one of them. Thus, he declared, there would be universal mourning to accompany his own death. It is, however, Herod’s slaughter of the Innocents that most concerns us today, since it was his impotent attempt to overrule the prophecies of God that a king and messiah should be born in Bethlehem. If all the boys under two years of age were killed, Herod reckoned, then even the Son of God could not escape him.
There are, of course, certain ironies in a mere man’s attempt to kill God. If such a thing were truly possible, it would be an utter act of suicide, since the existence of all creatures depends on the existence of God. If one actually destroys God, he necessarily destroys himself. Less immediately apparent is the irony that Herod was already dying of a horrible “wasting” disease when he gave the order to kill all the boys of Bethlehem. He was a king of death fighting a battle against the King of life, while rapidly losing the war against decay and disease. A third irony was the true nature of Herod’s “kingship.” Herod was no real king at all. He was a creature and a puppet of the Roman Empire. His crown, however bloody his defense of it, was a sham and a mockery, a vivid metaphor for the bloody crowns the fallen world offers us every day.
Indeed, Herod was such a wretched person that it is easy for ordinary people to think that he has nothing to do with us, the same way that we could never imagine ourselves taking the part of a Hitler or a Stalin in the history of the world. In fact, during the Middle Ages, Herod became a figure of fun: a bumbling form of a bogeyman and hapless tyrant in the miracle plays that entertained the people on their holidays. Think Elmer Fudd or Sgt. Schultz, and you start to get the picture. But Herod needs to have a serious place in our moral thinking, for if none of us is a “Herod the Great,” we are all tempted by the same evil that captured his rotten soul, the same evil which can and does seduce us into becoming a battalion of “little Herods.” Whenever we serve ourselves at the expense of other people, whenever we make those around us pay the price for our delusions of grandeur or fantasies of self-importance, there is little to distinguish us from that awful man in any real sense. Whenever we sin or aid the sin of others, we are simply adding our own time and treasure, voice and strength to a corrupt goal much less impressive than Herod the Great’s. After all, at least he was a king of the Jews; when I sin, it is in service to a kingdom of nothing.
Herod then is the perfect picture of mankind unredeemed, and his excesses are simply the working out of the fallen human nature against which we all must contend. He is a reminder of what it looks like when we are given power and authority by God only to be wasted in the struggle for more power or money or respect. He is a reminder that every one of us would lose the battle against the fallenness of our nature, were it not for the unmerited gift of God’s grace and the continual stewardship of the Holy Spirit in our lives. It really isn’t that we are better than Herod because we have made better decisions than the Butcher of Bethlehem; in fact, we almost certainly aren’t since the government which operates in our name out Herod’s Herod on a hourly basis by funding and protecting abortionists. No, our only hope given the blood on our own hands is the cleansing blood of the child king Herod didn’t kill in his mad slaughter of the innocents, the child king whose sinless life and loving sacrifice of Himself for us is the only thing which stands between us and the eternal punishment we deserve: the just wrath we deserve more than we have deserved anything in our lives.
Before the incarnation we are celebrating this Christmastide, it isn’t as if humanity was on the side of the angels but needed God to help us out a bit; no, we were on the side of Herod, on the side of the Evil One, and God let us stab Him in the heart, so that we could find peace in His embrace. This reality should break us; it should cause us to rip the idols out of own hearts, it should cause us to be repulsed by the parts of us which call us back to serving Herod again, back to serving in the army which dared believe it could kill God, back to serving the empty kingdoms of our hearts when we can forever serve in the eternal Kingdom of God.
And what does that service look like? Amazingly, it comes with the crowns of glory we will always be denied if we follow Herod rather than the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. A true and beautiful version of the power and respect our fallen world teaches us to crave from our cradles is actually given to us by the God whose everlasting power and authority is the only power which matters in a world destined for destruction, a world where, without God, even the memory of our existence will vanish like a half-remembered dream. Jesus described for His apostles what this power looks like on our fallen world, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves. You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (St. Luke 22:25-30). Our allegiance to the everlasting power and authority of God is shown in our steadfast faith in Christ, a faith which is rewarded with an office of everlasting authority in the new heaven and new earth. And lest we think this kind of authority is only for the apostles, St. Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians, “…do you not know that the saints will judge the world?…Do you not know that we are to judge angels?” (1 Cor. 6:2-3) Or, as St. John hears in the song of the presbyters, “Worthy [is the Lamb] to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Rev. 5:9-10).
We must wrap our heads around the kind of powerful God who decrees that the lowliest ditch digger who puts his faith in the blood of Christ will reign in a splendor no earthly king or president or tyrant can ever match. To believe in Christ is to know this truth. Our thanksgiving for this new reality is a life lived in humility and service to all, a life lived in worship and praise of the God who has made His enemies into His children, made the forsaken and the weak into the righteous and powerful. We serve God in faith and love because, through the public, historic resurrection of God the Son, we now know that it is not Herod who is great, but the children he ordered destroyed; we now know that it is those children who will judge Herod because despite all the death and destruction, pleasure and money, Herod is king of nothing and Christ is king of all.