“Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.”
Words from T S Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi.”
Most of us imagine the Christmas story in terms of mangers, shepherds and a sweet newborn baby – images of joy, peace and hope; but if we take time to read Matthew’s infancy accounts properly we may be dismayed by what is at times a dark, foreboding narrative, a story of political intrigue and violence. Here the revelation of Jesus Christ breaks into a gritty and edgy world – our world – subdued under imperial power, locked up in political intrigue and teetering on the edge of violence.
The Gospels tell us that Jesus was born into an occupied land, a small out-post, on the edge of a powerful and brutal empire. Jesus is eventually killed under this political power, and at the time his death will mean nothing to Rome, for how could it know that this man would be the most decisive political challenge it would face? Indeed, Rome knew how to deal with its enemies: you kill them or co-opt them. But how do you deal with a movement, a revolution, a kingdom whose citizens refuse to believe that violence will determine the meaning of history? How could they know that this one person would create a community that would challenge the world’s violence by the revolutionary practise of cross and resurrection?
But for now we are only at the beginning of this unfolding narrative. The innocent-sounding reference to time and location, pits Herod’s time, an era of violence and exploitation, against the messianic time that is now beginning: a time associated in Matthew with healing, inclusion, restoration, gathering, of a new kind of power at work in the world.
Not only is Herod stirred up and set off balance, but “all Jerusalem with him,” for the new king does not come from and is not controlled by the Jerusalem establishment, and so threatens the religious, social, economic, and political arrangements in which “all Jerusalem” is so heavily invested. The scene’s theme and vocabulary are reminiscent both of Pharaoh’s opposition to Moses’ freeing God’s people from slavery in Egypt and of Jesus’ crucifixion by the religious and political elite. In this way the infancy narratives look backwards and forwards to the defining moments of liberation and the defeat of hostile worldly powers by the promise and purpose of God. This will be a story of a prophetic figure who would suffer the worst that the empire can do to him, but whose resurrection will expose the limits of Roman power and unleash a new power in the world: the power of life and love.
Indeed, Herod’s fear of this tiny baby reveals the depth of his fragility. The Herods of this world rule in fear and by fear, and like all who rule by fear, the last thing they, or those they rule, wants, is to be surprised. Everything needs to stay the same, easily manageable and controllable, or suppressible. It cannot be good news that exotic strangers appear believing a new king to be born.
The prophecy cited is taken from Micah and the contrast between Herod’s rule and the one to be born in Bethlehem could not be clearer. The one to come does not depend on the old trappings of royalty and power; he is the one who will enter Jerusalem on a donkey. He is to be born in Bethlehem, never one of the power centres of Judah. Moreover, his rule is to be that of a shepherd. He will have no power, but the power that comes from his love of the lost sheep of Israel, a love so uncompromising that he is even willing to die for love of them.
The cosmic signs heralding this birth should come as no surprise to us, given that the love born in this humble place is the love that moves the sun and the stars, no surprise either that this is a ‘rising star,’ already leading us on the journey to resurrection. This rising power of love is the same love that Jesus will use later to calm the winds and the sea, and although the king comes to shepherd the lost sheep of Israel, this love is clearly not restricted to them: wise men – non-Israelites – are amongst the first to come and worship him.
The story that Matthew places before us is one that contrasts fear and joy. There are only two responses to this tiny baby: the paranoia of the powers that be, or the wondering joy of the wise-men. Threat and violence are not avoided by Matthew as he understands the challenge that this birth brings, and though Herod’s plans are finally thwarted by God, that innocent children suffer at his hands should remind us of the danger and violence of our world, a world that doesn’t easily recognise or welcome love.
What is incredible is that in a dark and violent world such as this, hope can still be born, joy can still be felt. Here Matthew illustrates the promise of God’s presence in the form of a confrontation with and a deliverance from evil and violence. It is God’s hand that turns a story of manipulation and threat into a story of wondrous joy and hope. God’s presence and power always surprise us, turning danger to deliverance and despair to hope. It is for us to have the conviction to believe that the alternatives set before us by the world do not begin to exhaust what is possible in God’s power. In the end, Matthew is telling us that God’s fragile promise will endure, for it is the indestructible promise of love. AMEN.