Nativity scenes (at least in my neighborhood) can sometimes feature a few unlikely “extras” — characters who had no connection to the actual birth of Christ, but who slip in and (if they behave) are allowed to remain, usually on the edge of the arrangement. Santa Claus is an example, and if he’s kneeling, he’s permitted to move closer to the crib. Reindeer can intermingle with the oxen, but snowmen and pink flamingos are staged at the far end of the sheep line.
But one figure who never appears, and who never will, is King Herod the Great.
There’s certainly no reason for him to be included, of course. After all, he tried to kill the newborn Jesus, and slaughtered “all of the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under” in his attempt (Mt 2:16). You might even say the Judean monarch was the original Grinch who tried to steal Christmas, except that Herod wasn’t out to pilfer the gifts and silence a few zealous carolers. This was war: a fight to the death for the throne, with no prisoners taken.
And for that reason, Herod may well have understood the true meaning of Christmas far better than many of us do.
After all, Herod had a lot to lose if he were displaced by a rival. He’d inherited the family business, so to speak. His father, Antipater, had married up in the world, and curried Rome’s favor such that Julius Caesar granted him Roman citizenship and made him procurator of Judea. Antipater, in turn, appointed Herod governor of Galilee; six years later, Marc Antony promoted him. By age 36, with Rome’s backing and blessing, Herod was declared king of Judea, a position he held for 32 years.
While in power, Herod — in today’s business jargon — synergized well and produced deliverables. He solidified Rome’s rule and embarked on an aggressive construction campaign that included two cities, a palace and the rebuilt Temple of Jerusalem.
Like many driven CEOs, though, Herod had marital difficulties, as you might expect of someone with a total of 10 wives and 14 children. Increasingly suspicious and unstable in his later years, he murdered his wife Mariamne and several of her family members, including two sons. His physical health declined, and he fell out with Caesar.
The visit of the Magi, with their news of a royal successor whose birth announcement blazed in the heavens, “greatly troubled” Herod (Mt. 2:3) — as well it should have. The Prince of Peace had come to bring not mere political and economic stability, but the divine serenity that can only be experienced when everything, and nothing less, has been surrendered to the Lord.
In his film “Jesus of Nazareth,” director Franco Zeffirelli vividly depicted Herod’s anguish over his inevitable loss of power. After the court counselors protest the monarch’s order to massacre the male infants of Bethlehem, Herod (portrayed by actor Peter Ustinov) rages through the halls of his palace, defiantly declaring, “This is my world; I will not share it with an infant! There’s no room for two kings here.”
The line is creative, not Scriptural, but historians tend to agree that the sentiment, and the horrific edict in which it resulted, were well in keeping with the paranoia of an aging Herod. Without even beholding the Christ child, he was driven to his knees; stiff-necked, he refused to bow, and prior to his death, he even attempted suicide. As Simeon prophesied, Jesus is indeed “destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel,” and through him “the thoughts of many hearts” are revealed (Lk 2:34, 35).
But what scares us most about that revelation isn’t the prospect that the Lord knows our secret sins (which he does). Rather, as Fulton J. Sheen observed, “our greatest fear is not that God may not love us enough but that he may love us too much.”
Too much to leave us as we are, and too much to only love us from afar. An eternal Lord who unveiled himself as an infant cannot possibly be expected to share a throne of our own making — especially since he has “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavens” (Eph 2:6).
Had he not gripped the arms of his earthly throne so tightly, Herod might have opened his hands wide in thanksgiving and joy at the news of the Magi. This Christmas, and every day, may we do what this ancient ruler could not, and attain a kingdom where love reigns without end.
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