NOTE: Throughout the Advent & Christmas seasons, we’ll be posting reflections on the readings for Holy Days and Sundays, usually just a few days beforehand so individuals and groups can reflect in anticipation or incorporate it into their meetings, homilies, etc. The reflection will be available on our homepage through the weekend and then archived on our Advent & Christmas 2021 webpage.
The reflection below was originally written by Ched Myers in 1999 for our Advent reflection booklet, Discovering God with Us: 1999 Pax Christi USA Advent Journal.
By Ched Myers
“Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
Matthew’s Christmas story is a helpful corrective to manic holiday self-gratification. It speaks only of ambiguity, political violence, displacement and danger — which is to say it portrays real life as it is for the poor, then and now.
Matthew’s account of Herod is inspired by two older stories from the Hebrew Bible. The first we find in Numbers 22-23, where the Canaanite king Balak summons Balaam “from the east” (Num 23:7) to curse Israel (22:6), only to be betrayed when the prophet instead pronounces blessing (23:8ff). In Matthew, Herod is double-crossed by Eastern astrologers that he had employed to find Jesus, ostensibly so that he might “bless” the child-king.
At issue in this scene is true political legitimacy. The astrologers are seeking a star, a cosmic symbol traditionally used in antiquity to signal the birth of a great leader. Herod, the half-Jew despot serving Rome’s interests in colonial Palestine, is rightfully disturbed that these foreigners have named the child “King of the Jews” — for that is his own title (Mt 2:1-2)! The rivalry deepens when his assembled advisers remind Herod of the prophetic oracle that the true “ruler” of the people will come from the margins (2:4-6).
Herod understand this as a challenge to his hegemony, but, typical of the powerful, cloaks his sinister plans in pious pretense (2:8) The astrologers, however, are not fooled. Finding the child, they give him gifts befitting true political authority, then betray Herod by slipping out of the country (2:12). The holy family will soon follow suit, fleeing the wrath of Herod to Egypt. So does the Savior of the world begin life as a political refugee.
Actions of holy obedience are sometimes also risky acts of political disobedience, calling to mind the second “background” story from the Hebrew Bible. Exodus 1-2 narrates the birth of Moses, whose life is similarly threatened by a paranoid potentate, and similarly saved by an “underground railroad”. The parallels are uncanny. The challenge of an infant unleashes a policy of infanticide — in the name of “national security” (Ex 1:16-20 = Mt 2:16-18). Royal attempts to work through accomplices fail because the Hebrew midwives in Exodus and the astrologers in Matthew are prepared to deceive their superiors to protect the innocent.
We never hear again of these anonymous heroes. Yet can two more consequential acts of conscience be found anywhere in history? Sadly, this only further enrages the mighty, and an absurd mismatch ensues: kings against kids! Yet such is the paradox of biblical history. As imperial minds plot genocide, God’s messengers enter the world at risk: floating down the Nile in a reed basket (Ex 2:3), spirited out of the country on back roads (Mt 2:14). Against the presence of Power is pitted the power of Presence. God with us.
Where do you hear the messengers of God at risk today, speaking out even against the powerful who seek their demise?
>> For more resources and reflections from throughout the Advent & Christmas season, click here.