Everybody wants to reduce Christmas to a Christmas card: we’d like this to be a pretty and sentimental tale. But today, the third day after the orgiastic opening of the presents beneath the tree, is also the day that the traditional liturgical calendar tries to slap us into serious reflection on the meaning of the event, jolting us out of our turkey comas and eggnog overdoses with an unforgettably grim story.
Church calendars mark December 28 as Holy Innocents’ Day, the day we remember the deaths of the babies in Bethlehem who were murdered at Herod’s command. Matthew is our source for the story (Matthew 2:1-18), and the Three Wise Men are the unwitting bearers of doom. The Three Kings or Wise Men who famously gifted the baby Jesus with gold, frankincense, and myrrh also set off a train of events that resulted in the most chilling story of mass murder in the New Testament.
The Three Wise Men mentioned in the Bible seem to have been astrologers; it might be better to call them “astrologists” because astrology in their time combined elements that today we would call science with what today would be called balderdash. Keeping track of the tides, the seasons, and the calendar by watching the heavens were all things wise men used to do. Keeping track of and learning to predict the movements of the sun and the moon helped early civilizations forecast tides and winds. The ability to predict solar and lunar eclipses was one of the earliest and greatest scientific accomplishments of the human mind; at the time, what we call astrology and what we call astronomy were still joined at the hip. The wise men (and women) of old made a great intellectual leap when they realized that the movement of heavenly bodies influenced events on the earth. They may not have understood gravity, but they figured out that there was some kind of connection between the movement of the moon and the state of the tides. If they also believed that the same invisible rays from the stars and the planets that brought the changing seasons and raised the tides controlled the tides of human history too, they are not the only intellectuals in world history to have pressed a theory past its breaking point or to have assumed that correlation and causation are the same.
In any case, the Wise Men are said to have been “following a star” that led them to the place where Jesus was born. There are many rival theories about what exactly the Wise Men were following and when, but based on what we know about astrological thinking at the time, it’s possible to make some reasonable conjectures. Matthew’s Gospel refers to a star “in the east,” which his better-educated Greek readers might have recognized as en te anatole, their technical term for a planet that appears on the eastern horizon moments before the dawn breaks and outshines the planet. Modern astronomers refer to this event as a heliacal rising. Greeks thought that Jupiter’s heliacal rising was particularly portentous. This year, the so-called “Great Conjunction” between Jupiter and Saturn points to another possibility. As the planets move through the skies, they sometimes come so close together that they appear to merge, or almost merge, into a single orb. Astrologers attribute special cosmic significance to these conjunctions; it may have been an event of this kind that set the Wise Men off on their journey.
That’s all fine and explains the star in the east. What about it standing over Bethlehem and directing the Wise Men there? “Stood over” is another technical term from Greek astronomy and refers to the moment when a planet appears to stop in the night sky and then reverse course.
The heliacal rising of Jupiter, which in 6 BC coincided with other astrologically significant events, may have indicated to the Wise Men that something important had happened—the birth of the new King of the Jews. They appear to have known the Old Testament well enough to travel to Jerusalem and ask Herod how to find the new king and greet him.
Their arrival created a stir at court. In an age when astrology was perhaps the most prestigious branch of science, the news that the heavens were proclaiming the birth of a potential rival to the throne was not received well. Herod was already the King of the Jews, and he had every intention of being succeeded by members of his own family. The idea that another claimant was getting born in some corner of his dominions did not please him. Herod asked the Wise Men to return to court when they found that baby so that “he might worship him too.”
While it is impossible at this distance to be certain about what happened next, it would appear that Jupiter stopped moving in the heavens as the Wise Men reached Bethlehem. Taking this as a sign that they had reached their goal, the Wise Men looked around Bethlehem and found Jesus. An astronomer has calculated that, if he correctly identified the constellation of events that piqued the interest of the Wise Men, they arrived when Jesus was about eight months old.
Being warned by a dream, one perhaps reinforced by a belated attack of common sense, the Wise Men quietly slipped away after their visit to Bethlehem without stopping off to tell the king exactly which child they had found. This left Herod, whose agents presumably had kept track of the general movement of this caravan of conspicuous strangers as far as Bethlehem, with no simple way to get rid of the dangerous baby. In the absence of better information, he decided to kill every child in Bethlehem less than two years of age. Better safe than sorry, he reasoned.
Joseph was also warned in a dream, we are told; he and Mary took the child to Egypt and so missed Herod’s attack. Herod’s goons arrived in Bethlehem and set about their work. Where the night had recently echoed with the songs of angels to the shepherds, the streets of Bethlehem filled with the cries of mothers as their children were taken and killed.
This was, Matthew tells us, the fulfillment of an ancient prediction of the prophet Jeremiah: “Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled because they are no more.”
People complain about the commercialization of Christmas; maybe we should think more about the way our culture sentimentalizes and trivializes a very serious event. The holiday isn’t just about a red-nosed reindeer’s quest for social acceptance; it is about streets red with the blood of slaughtered innocents while the Holy Family flees into exile.
Get away from Christmas card sentimentality, and some troubling questions come up. What kind of a God would get his own kid out of harm’s way while leaving so many other children so exposed? Why didn’t God give all the parents dreams? Or, more elegantly, why didn’t He send Herod a nice heart attack? One of the most basic questions that people quite justifiably ask about God comes into play here: What kind of God could allow such evil and catastrophic things to happen? Why are innocents slaughtered and oppressed anywhere? If God is so powerful and He loves us so much, why are the historical records, and our daily newspapers, so full of violence, evil, and oppression?
The classic Christian answer to this question, and here again standard Christianity makes a lot of sense to me personally, has two parts. The first is that God made us free; He did not want a universe of sock puppets praising and obeying Him. He wanted a world, not a computer simulation.
The second point is that God is serious. When He made us, He meant it. We are real, and what we do counts. He has given us the freedom to be co-creators with Him of the world we live in. But having given us real freedom, He is stuck with the consequences—and so are we. Our choices are real, and they have real consequences for ourselves and for those around us. If the Germans vote for Hitler, Hitler is who they and their neighbors will get. If God is serious about our freedom, He must abide by the choices we make.
God could have made a world without Herods—if He had made a world without real moral actors and autonomous beings. He could have made a G-rated, namby-pamby world like Teletubbies where nothing really bad ever happens. But it would be a toy world, not a real place with real people in it. God chose to make us real; we use our freedom as we do, and the result is the history we all read about and the cruelties, hypocrisies, and moral failures that we all see and know.
But if God must take our choices seriously, He did not and does not have to let it end there. God, Christians believe, did not abandon us to the consequences of the choices that we and other human beings have made. Instead, He determined to engage with us even more deeply, to enter history Himself and to transform it from within. Christians believe that God launched a complex, multi-generational rescue operation, one that is still going on today. He will not renege on His commitment to make us free and intelligent co-creators of the world, but He is also determined not to let evil and ignorance have the last word. He will not allow our mistakes, our shortcomings, and even our crimes and our atrocities to separate us from His love if there is any way at all He can reach us.
The Christmas story is the moment when the rescue operation shifts into high gear. God leaves His throne, leaves heaven, and enters the world as a baby, entering the historical process Himself as a human being to be shaped by human culture with all its shortcomings and limits; to share the joys, sorrows, and temptations of human life in all their bewildering complexity; and to share the vulnerability of humans to betrayal, injustice, torment, and, finally, death.
God gave up everything that He had to rescue us. He ran into the burning building to pull us out. He gave up His seat in the lifeboat to make room for someone else. He was so determined to make us real that when we got in trouble, He lost Himself to find us. That is what we are celebrating at Christmas, and that is what this story is about.
From the very beginning, Jesus was subject to the same kind of contingencies that affect us all. His parents traveled in a peak season without reservations; He was born in a manger. And if He was rescued from Herod, it wasn’t to live happily ever after. Years later, as an adult, Jesus would walk, purposefully and with full knowledge of what He did, toward a fate as bloody and as cruel as the one that overtook the babies of Bethlehem at Herod’s command.
Right at the beginning of His life on earth, Jesus was at the place where hope and death meet. That is what childbirth was in the bad old days when doctors and midwives alike weren’t able to do all that much at the crisis of birth; death and birth were intimately linked for all human babies, and not just the Christ. Jesus emerges into history, this stinking, reeking cesspit of blood and crime and oppression in which, somehow, human love and talent and striving never quite die. Before He was through, the whole weight of history would fall upon Him.
God paid an obscene price for His determination to people the world with real people and autonomous moral actors rather than sock puppets. That is what we really celebrate at Christmas. Yes, the starstruck shepherds hear the angels and gather quietly around the baby in the manger. But then the soldiers—some, perhaps, the brothers or the cousins of the shepherds in the hills—will also come to Bethlehem and do their best to kill Him. Still God came, knowing that the soldiers would get Him in the end and do their worst.
Holy Innocents’ Day strips the sentimentality of the season away. This is the shock of Christmas; God’s gifts aren’t like a pair of warm mittens or a toy choo-choo train. They shake the foundations of the world. On the one hand, God gives us the terrible power of moral freedom with which we have made a hell on earth. On the other, He gives us Himself as a willing sacrifice to redeem us and bring us into an ever closer and more intimate relationship with Him. It is an unbearable, unlimited love: a flame so hot and so passionate that we can’t look directly into it or abide its presence without help.
“The hopes and fears of all the years/Are met in thee tonight,” says the famous carol about the little town of Bethlehem. That is about right. The silent night of Christmas Eve soon turns into the raging grief and horror of Holy Innocents’ Day. The Christmas season encompasses both events, birth and death, hope and murder; the event we remember at this time of year, the Incarnation of God in human flesh and human history, engages the full spectrum of human life.