The Kingdom of Heaven at Hand
Though in hindsight I am not proud to admit it, the Gospel of Matthew once made me a libertarian. I really did not like that Herod fellow.
Even at a young age, I was blessed with the rare insight that murdering babies is bad, and that anyone who promulgates a sovereign decree that it should be done en masse is probably not a very nice guy. Long before the name Barack Obama invaded my eight-year-old ears, the king of Judea had taught me to hate the government. (Besides the slaughter of the innocents, there was the general problem of setting himself up as a petty rival against the all-powerful Creator of the universe.)
Around this time of year we tend to hear the Gospel of Luke, with its rich narration of Gabriel’s visit to the Virgin Mary and the ensuing birth of Christ. But Matthew recounts the nativity no less vividly, and highlights that important if less joyful element: the hostility with which the Lord of all creation was met by a middling provincial king upon his prophesied arrival.
When Jesus therefore was born in Bethlehem of Juda, in the days of king Herod, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem. Saying, Where is he that is born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to adore him. And king Herod hearing this, was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And assembling together all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where Christ should be born. But they said to him: In Bethlehem of Juda. For so it is written by the prophet:
And thou Bethlehem the land of Juda art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come forth the captain that shall rule my people Israel. Then Herod, privately calling the wise men, learned diligently of them the time of the star which appeared to them; And sending them into Bethlehem, said: Go and diligently inquire after the child, and when you have found him, bring me word again, that I also may come to adore him. Who having heard the king, went their way; and behold the star which they had seen in the east, went before them, until it came and stood over where the child was. And seeing the star they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
And entering into the house, they found the child with Mary his mother, and falling down they adored him; and opening their treasures, they offered him gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having received an answer in sleep that they should not return to Herod, they went back another way into their country. And after they were departed, behold an angel of the Lord appeared in sleep to Joseph, saying: Arise, and take the child and his mother, and fly into Egypt: and be there until I shall tell thee. For it will come to pass that Herod will seek the child to destroy him. Who arose, and took the child and his mother by night, and retired into Egypt: and he was there until the death of Herod. (Matthew 2:1-14)
Nor is Herod’s son much better. In one of the strangest episodes of the Gospels—at once horrific and profoundly affecting—the tetrarch Herod Antipas orders the murder of John the Baptist:
For Herod had apprehended John and bound him, and put him into prison, because of Herodias, his brother’s wife. For John said to him: It is not lawful for thee to have her. And having a mind to put him to death, he feared the people: because they esteemed him as a prophet.
But on Herod’s birthday, the daughter of Herodias danced before them: and pleased Herod. Whereupon he promised with an oath, to give her whatsoever she would ask of him. But she being instructed before by her mother, said: Give me here in a dish the head of John the Baptist. And the king was struck sad: yet because of his oath, and for them that sat with him at table, he commanded it to be given. And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison.
And his head was brought in a dish: and it was given to the damsel, and she brought it to her mother. And his disciples came and took the body, and buried it, and came and told Jesus. Which when Jesus had heard, he retired from thence by boat, into a desert place apart, and the multitudes having heard of it, followed him on foot out of the cities. (Matthew 14:1-11)
Then, of course, there is Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who passes Christ’s sentence of death, accomplishing three decades later what the elder Herod once had failed to do. After the crucifixion, the apostles lock themselves away until the resurrected Lord appears to them.
In each of these instances the formula is the same: The ruler commits some grave atrocity, at which point Christ or his followers retreat into safety or seclusion, leaving the ruler to do what he will until he dies a natural death. I took the wrong lessons from this pattern, assumed that it should always be so—that this was the lot of the Christian, that the sovereign would always be Herod—and resigned myself to a life in Egypt.
But this does not comport with the full Gospel account of the nativity. When Mary learns that she is bearing the foretold Savior, after first praising God for his goodness, she rejoices that he has set in motion the complete transformation of the temporal order:
He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped Israel his servant, remembering his mercy, according to his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever. (Luke 1:51-55, NABRE)
There is a reason that Herod is jealous of the child born in Bethlehem. This is the King of kings, whose ordained reign will do exactly what the client king fears: strip him of his temporary power, tear down his pretensions and his pride, force his bare and uncrowned soul before the judgment of the Ancient of days.
This fact is at the center of Jesus’ meeting with Pilate, a whole life away from the beginning of the manger, the rage of Herod, the flight to Egypt.
And Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, saying: Art thou the king of the Jews? Jesus saith to him: Thou sayest it. And when he was accused by the chief priests and ancients, he answered nothing. (Matthew 27:11-12)
As the vicious suffering of the Passion peaks, the truth returns again to the center of the story:
And they came to the place that is called Golgotha, which is the place of Calvary. And they gave him wine to drink mingled with gall. And when he had tasted, he would not drink. And after they had crucified him, they divided his garments, casting lots; that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying: They divided my garments among them; and upon my vesture they cast lots.
And they sat and watched him. And they put over his head his cause written: THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS. (Matthew 27:33-37)
This is not mere metaphor, and it was not falsely believed. Christ came to rule, to remake our world, to bring not peace but a sword. There is nothing which should inspire more certainty, nothing to which we owe more faith, than the incarnation of the One True God. If it is true—and it is—then surely all things must be ordered around that truth.
The O antiphons, ancient prayers used by the Church in the last seven days of Advent, are forceful on this point—and become only more so as the seven days progress. The third celebrates Christ’s conquest of the corrupt powers of this world: O radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem Gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare. But by the sixth we see Christ himself confirmed in their place as King of the nations: O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti. And on the seventh, we exult in “our King and our lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their salvation”: O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio Gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos, Domine, Deus noster.
Yes, Herod must fall. But a new kingdom must be raised up when he does. The angel of the Lord conveys as much to Mary on announcing the birth we celebrate today:
Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the most High; and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father; and he shall reign in the house of Jacob for ever. And of his kingdom there shall be no end. (Luke 1:31-33)
This has been promised through the ages. This day reminds us that our faith in that promise is merited; it should remind us, too, of the awesome demands that faith imposes on us.
I beheld because of the voice of the great words which that horn spoke: and I saw that the beast was slain, and the body thereof was destroyed, and given to the fire to be burnt: And that the power of the other beasts was taken away: and that times of life were appointed them for a time, and a time. I beheld therefore in the vision of the night, and lo, one like the son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and he came even to the Ancient of days: and they presented him before him. And he gave him power, and glory, and a kingdom: and all peoples, tribes and tongues shall serve him: his power is an everlasting power that shall not be taken away: and his kingdom that shall not be destroyed. (Daniel 7:11-15)