Prepare O Bethlehem – King Herod and the Holy Innocents

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slaughter of infants
Herod was filled with alarm
When he saw the righteous wisemen.
Overcome by fury,
He determined when the child was born
Mothers were robbed of their infants:
Their tender lives were reaped as a bitter harvest.
Milk stopped flowing and breasts dried up
Great was the suffering!
Therefore assemble in holy fear, O faithful,
To worship the birth of Christ!
– Stikhera for Ninth Hour of the Royal Hours of Christmas
(Byzantine Orthodox Church)

Christ is born! Glorify Him!

The story of King Herod and the death of the holy innocents stands out grimly in the birth narratives of Jesus Christ. While Herod is never seen in crèche scenes and he seldom is represented in Parish tableaus, he is mentioned in the birth narrative. While Herod is not formally commemorated on the Church calendar, we do remember the martyrdom of the holy innocents in Bethlehem on the first Sunday after Christmas. I’m 2015, we remembered them on Dec 27. This post and the coming couple of posts are delayed as I was busy with my secular work and did not get time to write on these topics.

King Herod was King Herod the Great, the father of the Herodian dynasty and the father of Herod Antipas, who killed John the Baptist and assisted Pontius Pilate in condemning Jesus to death (Luke 9:7, 23:6-7). The Scriptures offer little information about King Herod except that he was the King of the Jews. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that Herod was an ambitious politician and a strong leader. He was alive when Julius Caesar was killed, and befriended Mark Anthony. Herod was later summoned to Rome to receive the title “King of the Jews”, and he returned to Jerusalem as their King. By the time of the birth of Jesus, the Roman Empire controlled most of the known world around the Mediterranean and was organized into smaller kingdoms. Herod, the King of Judea, was unpopular with many Jews because he was a foreigner and only part Jewish. Although Matthew does not tell us directly, it is likely that any news about a newborn King would not be welcomed by Herod or his followers. The mere mention of a newborn “king” would cause anxiety in most people, and especially to someone as the unpopular Herod.

Herod told the wise men that he too wanted to visit the Christ child (Matthew 2:7-8). Joseph, after being alerted in a dream, took Mary and the infant Jesus and fled to Egypt, where they remained until the angel told them to return to Nazareth.

Herod, in a rage, had all the make children who were two years old or younger killed so that he could kill the baby Jesus.According to Matthew, this fulfills a prophesy in Jeremiah,

“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more. This says the Lord: ‘Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for your work shall be rewarded says the Lord, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future, says the Lord, and your children shall come back to their own country'” (Jeremiah 31:15).

Jeremiah speaks of the exile of the northern tribes and uses the example of Rachel weeping for her children who were taken away.

The story of Herod and the Holy innocents is strikingly similar to the beginning of the Exodus story. In Exodus, Pharaoh wanted all the male babies killed because the Israelites were over populating Egypt. Yet, we know that Moses was miraculously saved, ironically, by Pharaoh’s daughter (Exodus 2:1-6).

Moses survived this ordeal, and he later became the leader in the house of Pharaoh. He eventually led the people on their exodus journey, and died just before they entered the promised land (Deuteronomy 34).

Herod went after the baby Jesus as soon as he heard from the Magi that they saw a star in the East. The Magi refer to Jesus as a king, a title which is used again and again throughout the New Testament. In the beginning of the Gospel of John, Nathaniel says of Jesus, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:49). Later in the same Gospel, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, refers to Jesus as King, although in order to mock Him (John 18:33-38).

Throughout the Scriptures, other people affirm that Jesus is a king, but Jesus never referred to Himself as a king. In His passion narrative, Luke tells us that some from the crowd told Pilate that Jesus called Himself a king and forbade people from paying tribute to Caesar. This would be considered an act of rebellion, because all Roman citizens had to pay their taxes and honor Caesar as the Roman Emperor (Luke 23:1-5). Yet, Jesus never stirred up a rebellion against the Romans nor did He forbid people to pay their taxes. Actually, the opposite is true, on one occasion, He told His disciples to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s (Matthew 22:21).

While Jesus never sought political authority and power, He frequently spoke about His Father’s Kingdom. His parables describing the kingdom of God show a different Kingdom from what people assumed. He used everyday images, such as a mustard seeds, yeast and a camel through an eye of a needle, to show that God worked in ways unknown to man. As the prophet Isaiah says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55:8). Jesus taught about the kingdom of heaven throughout most of His ministry. Yet, at the end of His life, it is ironic that this peaceful, loving, Jewish carpenter was sentenced to death for the charges of blasphemy and treason, for supposedly calling Himself a king and rebelling against Rome. All four Gospels mention that there was a sign on the cross which read “Jesus King of the Jews,” and the Gospel of John emphasizes that this was written in Greek, Latin and Hebrew (John 19:20).

Herod’s attempt to kill Jesus‘ life in the beginning of the Gospel foreshadowed what is to come, since at nearly every step, there were opponents of Jesus and His ministry. Throughout the Scriptures, the Pharisees, Scribes, and Jewish leaders seek to destroy Jesus and put Him to death (read Matthew 21:45-46). Likewise, even Judas, one of His own disciples, betrays Him, and Peter, His favorite disciple, denies Him three times! So, we should not be surprised that Jesus was in danger even from the very beginning of His life. Yet, Jesus managed to perform meant miracles and proclaim the Kingdom of God to the people, and some did hear and accept the Gospel, the same Gospel that is proclaimed to us. Unfortunately, there are still people who do not want the Gospel to grow and, therefore, they try to prevent it from growing. However, the Gospel is continually preached throughout the world and is under the power of God Himself who gives the growth. Our job is to stay out of His way and allow Him to keep planting those seeds of the Kingdom.

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