Christmas again – and in a remote corner of the Roman empire a boy who changes the world is born in a manger; a boy who will never became a ruler, never own a car or a mansion, never run for high political office, never become a celebrity or rise to be a man of great wealth or rank.
Yet, the birth of this boy, who, other than the clothes stripped from His body and divided among his torturers, will leave no earthly possessions behind Him and be buried in another man’s grave, strikes such fear into the mind of Herod the King that a genocide of young children is ordered.
In unleashing this horrific wave of persecution thousands of other young boys, under the age of two, are murdered. To escape the massacre the child in the manger is secreted away in the dead of night to a place of safety in far away Egypt.
In the midst of the shopping frenzy and consumerism which marks out our contemporary Christmas it’s worth pondering these extraordinary events.
In the whirly-gig of preparations for the great festival we not only overlook the awesome religious significance of the manger moment – when “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” – but we overlook the brutality and violence which accompanies the new Adam at his Bethlehem nativity.
It is a sobering thought that, even as those near magical and enchanted moments are being enacted, when the shepherds and the Magi kneel before Him and worship God, Herod’s ruthless butchers are sharpening and making ready their knives. In the words of the sixteenth century Coventry Carol:
“Herod, the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.”
This lament of a mother for her child doomed to die are lyrics with applicability to our own times.
Written by Robert Croo, in 1534, for the traditional Coventry Plays and included in The Pageant of the Shearman and Tailors Guild, which depicted Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, the lyrics could so easily be the lament of mothers caught up in contemporary tragedy across the globe.
Whether it is the child caught in the cross fire of a Sudanese militia; the young girl raped by a Congolese war lord; the Ugandan child murdered in a pagan ritual of child sacrifice; the child enlisted to be a child soldier or a drugs runner ; the boy or girl who is trafficked, exploited, robbed of innocence or abused; the child who each year joins the 100,000 UK runaways; or the baby, sheltering in what should be the safest place on earth – their mother’s womb – we feel all too keenly the caroler’s lament:
“Then woe is me, poor Child, for Thee,
And ever mourn and say;
For Thy parting, nor say nor sing,
By, by, lullay, lullay.”
The boy in the manger represents all persecuted people. His acute vulnerability challenges us to take a stand against the destruction of life and to pit ourselves against today’s Herods and their contemporary crimes against humanity. This story tells us everything we need to know about how to live – but it also teaches us about how to face everyday crises and about the reality of evil.
This is the challenging story of a young man and woman caught up in a bewildering drama – but who remain faithful to one another and who cherish a new life; it is the story of a man who stands by a woman unexpectedly with a child that isn’t his; it’s the story of a boy born in a manger swaddled in poverty; the refugee’s story of a forced escape; the story of a tyrant with a blood lust; and it is a story lived out against the threatening drum beat of arrest, escape, vilification and persecution. It’s a story that will end on Calvary and triumphantly in an empty tomb.
Although, for the shepherds and the Magi, this is a story which represents a dream come true, for me it remains a story of great crisis. It is the story which can propel us into searching and discovering the very purpose for which we have been made.
We must never let it be muffled by the sentimentalism, rank commercialisation, and forced conviviality into which Christmas celebrations can degenerate.
In “The God In The Cave” G.K.Chesterton, whose greatest love was the celebration of the Christmas festival, reminds us that if we begin the search it will not be without its risks, that evil hovers over the crib scene, stalking Jesus and His family:
“There was present in the primary scenes of the drama that Enemy that had rotted the legends with lust and frozen the theories into atheism, but which answered the direct challenge with something of that more direct method which we have seen in the conscious cult of the demons.”
Chesterton tells us that these stirrings of evil have a particular “detestation of innocence”.
Herod, he says, “seems in that hour to have felt stirring within him the spirit of strange things… Everyone knows the story; but not everyone has perhaps noted its place in the story of the strange religions of men… a seer might perhaps have seen something like a great grey ghost that looked over his shoulder…The demons in that first festival of Christmas, feasted also in their own fashion.”
Chief among our modern conceits is to foolishly dismiss the presence of evil.
So, let’s celebrate as we welcome again the child into our midst, but never overlook the presence of Chesterton’s grey ghosts.
May you and those you love have a joyous and happy Christmas.