“Keep Christ in Christmas” is a common refrain among some Christians this time of year, the idea being that secular holiday traditions often leave out the one whose birth we celebrate. Obviously, I agree that Christ is the heart and center of Christmas, though there is another character in the story of Christmas who is usually also left out even by the most devoted Christians: King Herod. Several years ago Joy Carroll Wallis wrote a powerful piece about the need to “Keep Herod in Christmas,” and Nadia Bolz Weber expanded on the idea in a striking blog post about Sandy Hook Elementary.
Nowhere does Herod appear in our mantle-adorning crèche scene, and even the most daring church would balk at including him in their children’s pageant. Perhaps it’s one too many times singing “Silent Night,” one too many times hearing “Away In a Manger,” with the little lord Jesus sleeping peacefully on the hay, but we’ve forgotten that Emmanuel, God-With-Us, occurred beneath the menacing shadow of a brutal despot, a murderous king whose desperation to hold onto power led him to slaughter innocent people, including children. No, God did not enter some saccharine sweet, Thomas Kinkaide-painted reality of a world. God accepted the fragility and vulnerability of birth, and entered a world as violent and disturbing as our own.
Friends, we must remember to keep Herod in Christmas, because evil like his continues to cast its terrible shadow over the world. When we trap an infant Jesus in the soft glow of a romanticized stable, we inevitably struggle to reconcile our photogenic holiday revelry with the horrific tragedies happening all around our world. This past week I’ve been reading the news coming out of Aleppo, Syria, and it is utterly devastating. I watched some of the “final messages to the world” recorded by people before the Syrian forces invaded their neighborhood and immediately executed them. There are various reports that women and children have not been spared, and efforts to evacuate them have been violently attacked. It is like Herod has stepped from the pages of a story we chose to forget, and has resumed his brutal campaign against the holy innocents.
It would be easy to succumb to despair in the face of brutality and violence such as Herod’s. It would be easy to go numb to the constancy of the suffering of our world, because it seems so pervasive and relentless. And yet, as the gospel reminds us, evil does not win. The boy born to Mary in Bethlehem that fateful night long ago was not just any baby, he was the Son of God and the Prince of Peace, and that means that evil will not win. Just as Herod could not resist the arc of salvation, neither will evil win in our own day.
My dear friends, Christmas is more than an escapist fantasy, and we who celebrate the birth of Jesus have more to offer the world than candy canes and cocoa. We have courage and compassion and the hope of the Gospel. We have a Savior who is not afraid of Herod, and so we don’t have to be, either. We have a light that shines in the darkness, which the darkness did not, cannot, and will not overcome.
PS If you’re looking for a way to respond to the catastrophe of Aleppo, I encourage you to review this set of suggestions. I am donating to the International Rescue Committee and writing to my congressman, and I hope you’ll choose to do something, too.