By Ched Myers, for The Feast of the Holy Innocents and Epiphany (Matthew 2)
This reflection offers biblical context for two feasts of the Christian church: one minor (Feast of the Innocents, Dec 28, 2016) and one major (Epiphany, Jan 6, 2017). These two holy days commemorate the narrative of Matthew 2 (though in reverse chronological order), which we read in Year A. In fact, the “Twelve Days of Christmas”—when re-interpreted through the lens of these two feasts—can truly be a gift to us, if an importunate one. These counter-narratives provide a much-needed corrective to the holiday season’s saccharine sentimentality and cacophonous commercialism, and equally to unreflective year-in-review rituals and banal New Year’s resolution-making. For they demand that we re-center our lives around the testimonies of those who are at risk in a world of imperial violence.
Whatever its historicity, Matthew’s account of Herod in his nativity story exhibits great “historical verisimilitude,” as Richard Horsley puts it (The Liberation of Christmas: The Infancy Narratives in Social Context, Crossroad, 1989). It presents an archetypal portrait of a paranoid tyrant, a description that could well fit either Herod the Great (who died either in 4 or 1 BCE) or his son Antipas (tetrarch of Galilee and Perea from 4 BCE to 39 CE). But the gospel narrative is also inspired by two stories from the Hebrew Bible, which add deeper layers of political critique to the two halves of Matthew 2.
The first allusion is to Numbers 22-23, in which the Canaanite king Balak summons Balaam the prophet “from the east” (23:7) to curse Israel (22:6), only to be betrayed when Balaam instead pronounces blessing (23:8ff). In Matthew, Herod is double-crossed by Magi “from the east,” who he had employed to find the child-king Jesus, ostensibly to “bless” him (Mt 2:1-8). At issue in this scene is political legitimacy. The astrologers seek a star—a cosmic symbol in antiquity signaling the birth of a great leader. Herod, the client despot serving Rome’s interests in colonial Palestine, is understandably disturbed that foreigners have named the child “King of the Jews”—which was, after all, his own title! This incipient rivalry is deepened when Herod’s assembled advisers remind him of the prophetic oracle promising a “ruler” of the people who will come from “one of the little clans of Judah” (Mt 2:4-6 = Micah 5:2).
Herod clearly understands this as a challenge to his hegemony, but, as is the way of the powerful (then and now), cloaks his sinister plans in pious pretense: he wishes to “pay homage” to the Child (2:8). The astrologers, however, are not fooled. Finding Jesus, they offer Him gifts befitting true political authority, the scene celebrated on Epiphany—which is why the Eastern Church celebrates Christmas on this date. Having rendered their allegiance, the Magi turn heel and slip out of the country.
Horsley provides fascinating historical context: these magoi were “originally a caste of highest ranking politico-religious advisers or officers of the Median emperor, then in the Persian imperial court.” As sages and seers they wielded legendary political influence, which explains why in earliest Christian tradition they were portrayed both as “wise men” and “kings.” More importantly, magoi may well according to Horsley “have been instrumental in opposing the Hellenistic imperial forces that conquered them and other ancient Near Easter peoples… Throughout the first century C.E., there was a continuing confrontation if not outright war between the Romans and the Parthian empire to the East. It is not difficult to imagine that the Magi would have been associated with the eastern empire in opposition to Rome.” Their actions in Matthew are, therefore, both conscientious (saving innocent life) and politically subversive of Herod (who was aligned with Rome).
For the second time in Matthew’s nativity story, Joseph receives instructions in a dream (2:13; see 1:20). Matthew is portraying the character of Jesus’ father in terms of the great patriarch Joseph, “the dreamer” who went away to Egypt (Gen 37). And this is precisely where the holy family flees to escape the wrath of Herod (2:14). So does the Savior of the world begin life as a political refugee.
These actions of holy obedience are at the same time risky acts of political disobedience, and call to mind a second story from the Hebrew Bible. Exodus 1-2 narrates the birth of Moses, whose life is also threatened by a paranoid potentate, and similarly saved by an “underground railroad.” The parallels between Pharaoh and Herod are uncanny. The challenge of an infant unleashes a policy of infanticide—justified of course by “national security” (Ex 1:16-20). Royal attempts to work through accomplices (Pharaoh’s Hebrew midwives, Herod’s astrologers) fail, however, because these characters choose life, and are prepared to deceive their superiors in order to protect the innocent. We never hear again of these midwives and astrologers—yet upon their acts of costly conscience hangs the whole of the biblical drama. Dare we assume that our own choices, minor players though we be, are any less consequential?
In the birth narratives of both Moses and Jesus, ordinary people resist authorityin order to protect life. But the Empire inevitably strikes back, and the slaughter of innocents ensues. The Bible is so much clearer than we are about the violent realities of Statecraft! “Rachel weeps” (Mt 2:17f = Jer 31:14) over such an absurd mismatch: emperors vs. infants! 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.
Matthew’s Advent story concludes with Joseph’s third and final dream (Mt 2:19-23). Herod’s death allows the holy family to return to Palestine, but the danger remains. They settle in an obscure frontier village, where Jesus grows up, until the day he will commence his public mission to face down the Powers once and for all.
Matthew’s terrible tale of Herod’s war against children is commemorated in the Feast of the Holy Innocents on Dec. 28th. Not well-known by U.S. Christians, it was instituted by the Latin Church in the fifth century to preserve the “underside” of the Christmas story. Perhaps the old church anticipated that the Nativity season would become too sentimentalized, too innocuous, and too triumphal in a comfortable Christendom (how right it was!). So this Feast was wisely instituted as a sharp counterpoint to all the pious pageantry.
The Feast of the Innocents—and Epiphany, for that matter—offer a grim reminder that there was and is a political cost to the Incarnation. Jesus was born not in a palace but in a feed trough to parents who were refugees, not royalty. The Bible is clear from beginning to end that the Principalities and Powers of this age—represented by corporate managers and political operatives and military strategists in every epoch, not least that of the Trump oligarchy—are forever threatened by the God who invades our world from below. In the name of national security, level orange, suspects (and all others who fit the profile) must be contained and neutralized. The result: “A voice is heard in Ramah”—the sound of women mourning. It is the children who are always the first victims.
The somber Feast of Innocents interrupts our Christmas and New Year’s reveling with the discomforting thought that behind the obfuscating rhetoric of “collateral damage” is the terrible reality of human lives caught in the cross fire. For it is mostly women and children and immigrants who are on the business end of imperial security sweeps, surgical strikes and shock and awe campaigns. Perhaps this is why the Feast is routinely ignored by our churches, who would rather avoid the inconvenient intrusion of both Word and World on our insular holiday feasting. I am grateful to friends at Jonah House for teaching me its importance. Each year for decades on Dec 28th they hold “Faith and Resistance” retreats that bear witness against militarism at the Pentagon. Because kids continue to be victimized by kings.
The ongoing story of suffering innocents still goes largely unreported in our media, of course, from the horn of Africa to the Amazon, from Gaza to Greensboro. Matthew’s Christmas pageant thus invites us to nurture our hope in the Christ child with eyes wide open to a world full of disappeared, homeless, trafficked and traumatized children. This Nativity speaks frankly of ambiguity, political violence, displacement and danger—which is to say, of real life as it is for the poor. Our world, too, teems with refugees, lamenting mothers, and the murderous designs of the mighty. But this is the world in which God is with us, into which God has come and yet will come. The only question is: Will we recognize the Presence, and act accordingly?