To celebrate the birth of Jesus in the way that we do contradicts at some innate level the core of what the story is about and how it is told in the scriptures.
Jesus is born into a violent world, the son of an unmarried Jewish couple, who became refugees fleeing a brutal persecution. He grew up as part of an occupied nation and oppressed community proclaiming peace, declaring God’s reign and bringing healing to the lives of many. And, as we know, he died betrayed by his own people to foreign rulers.
All of these factors point directly at the confrontation that occurs between God’s will and way for humanity and the way we actually live. The world Jesus was born into was a pretty messed up place and if we can look beyond the limited yet fragile security of our own little ecosystems we know that it is still pretty messed up.
As we herald in a new year we know Europe has descended into economic chaos and stands on the brink of total catastrophe; environmental issues largely caused by over consumption are destroying ecosystems everywhere and some argue threaten our very planet; natural disasters continue to unfold; shifts in political power and influence in various countries are raising all kinds of other security concerns. It is far easier to simply look to our own lives and concerns and hope we win the cricket than consider such matters.
As Christians we can only celebrate Jesus birth in the way that we do in Australia if we keep Jesus a cute child in the manger and fail to take him seriously from that point on. The moment we move beyond the pasteurized and homogenized nativities that have kept Jesus “mostly harmless” we find ourselves confronted by a deeper and more disturbing story of God present with us in the world.
The story which Matthew tells of a group of magi, or wise men, travelling from the East to see Jesus, is a story which should lead us away from the security blanket of our own blinkered and naive self-assuredness, into the reality of the problems within the creation and ultimately into the arms of the gracious God who has come to us in Jesus.
Matthew tells his tale of the magi against the backdrop of, for us, a difficult to swallow astrological event and the neurosis of a King installed by the Romans, Herod the Great.
As modern minded people the notion of a star rising at the birth of anyone important appears to be completely ludicrous. However, for the people for whom Matthew was writing his story the idea of a star was an essential sign of divine activity and prophesied greatness.
I wonder whether our reticence to accept the whole star thing is the idea that we are sold in the Western World, that we can be anything we want to be. In ancient times people had a much stronger sense that people were born with a place and destiny in the world, a notion that many of us would want to reject. Our education system encourages the belief that we can be anything we want to be – so our destiny is in our own hands. This mythology of our modern age refutes notions of natal stars heralding greatness because we have bought the lie any of us can be great – we just have to work hard enough to get there.
So here is our first and foremost confrontation as modern readers of this story. Do we believe that there are limitations on individuals to make their own destiny? Or is each of us in control of who we are and where we are going in our lives? If we believe the latter we then have no place for the baby that the wise men are going to see and the God we believe he is.
It is this very confrontation with who is in control which is also at issue for Herod the Great. Herod came to power around the year 47 B.C. He was an inspiring leader during his mid twenties suppressing rebellion, collecting taxes for Rome and proving himself an able commander to the point at which Caesar Augustus recognised his rule on behalf of Rome.
Herod’s kingship was particularly prosperous in the years between 25 and 12 B.C. after which time he was beset by a range of domestic problems particularly caused by issues concerning who his successor would be. Herod the Great had 10 wives and those with whom he had children vied for the right of their child to be his successor.
Without going into too much detail there was particular competition between the son of his first wife Doris, Antipater, and Herod’s favoured sons through his fourth with Malthace, who was incidentally a Samaritan, Alexander and Aristobulus. These favoured sons were hated by Herod’s sister Salome because she wanted her son to follow Herod. Thrown into this mix was the son of his third wife Mariamne the second, Philip. So mixed up was this situation, that over the years leading up to his death Herod wrote 6 wills to designate his successor.
This convoluted contest for power, which could provide more seditious behaviour and plotline for Days of our Lives, was all coming to a head when Herod encountered the magi bearing news of a child who they said was born as the king of the Jews.
Herod by now was quite ill and believed that he had his succession plans in place, or at least almost in place and then, all of a sudden, magi from the East travelling to see the birth a new king! By this stage Herod is not defending his own reign but his successors into which he had put so much planning.
Matthew tells us that Herod was frightened and all Jerusalem alongside him. Herod’s own rise to power and been pock marked with violence and intrigue and his own son Antipater, eager for the throne, had tried to poison him. Herod had good reason to have fears as did the people of Jerusalem. Instability in leadership led to wars.
Even without Jesus appearance on the scene things were in a state of flux. Power relationships with Rome based in the personal relationship between Emperor Augustus and Herod the Great were at stake. Herod’s sons and their mothers jockeying for position and power was unsettling. The known world was a troubled place despite the control Herod had sought to stamp on his little patch.
It is at this moment in history that God becomes human and magi come seeking a king. It is the confrontation between the powers of this world, and those who seek to make their own destiny, and the God who made all things.
The question of who is in control is being asked and asked in a most palpable way. Herod’s plan to control the situation is brutal and devastating – he kills all the male children less than 2 years of age in the area that the new king was supposed to be born. Joseph and Mary become refugees as they flee to Egypt and carry with them the vulnerability of God with us, Jesus.
Now the machinations of the Herodian dynasty may seem far removed from our 21st century world but the question of who is in control is not.
Looking into 2012 a new power emerges in North Korean replacing the almost mythical figure of Kim Jong Il. The European economic crisis continues to loom large and the distinct possibility of the collapses of nations in over their heads threatens political stability. In China new leadership will be established in the strongest economy in the world. Refugees continue to bleed out of oppression into other countries. Afghanistan remains unsettled. The Middle East continues to exude instability. World leaders shy away from questions of climate change. Children still starve to death.
The flight of Joseph and Mary carries with them the hope of the world, not just Herod’s world but ours. It is a hope which believes that God reaches out to supersede our fears and suspicions and to draw us home into relationship with each other and with God. It is a hope that says that the jockeying for power and the dispossession of the helpless is not the last word. It is a hope that looks into the face of death and says no.
Keeping Jesus a cute baby in the manger does not give honour to the turbulent world into which he was born or the children killed by Herod. Sentimentalising the story of Jesus birth discredits the cross.
As we begin 2012 the question which lies before each of us who is in control? And, where will I place my energy? As for myself I look to a star rising, heralding hope and new life; a star which flies in the face of contemporary logic and control; a star whose news is not reported in the Courier Mail or the Australian. A star which heralds the birth long ago of God with us and is told again and again in the lives of people who follow Jesus faithfully looking for the coming of a new kingdom, worshipping God, and eating and drinking bread and wine as food for their journey through exile home to God.
Photo: Creative Commons Robin_24