When they [the wise men] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him”. Matthew 2:13
Christmas is all about love and joy, hope and peace. But right there in the Bible story there is a dark side too. It focuses on the brooding figure of King Herod, whose threats drive Joseph, Mary and Jesus to flee to Egypt.
I have to admit that in all my years as a Christian I have given very little thought to this episode. Only Matthew of the Gospel-writers mentions it, and it covers less than a dozen verses, so it’s very easy to slide over (though that’s no excuse, of course).
But once you start thinking about it, it makes you aware that while the world into which Jesus was born was massively different from the world we live in today, it was very much the same as well. Let me pick out two points of similarity…
- It was a world of appalling cruelty.
Herod was a monster – a fact confirmed by writers outside the New Testament. Murder was second nature to him – he murdered his own wife (one of ten, anyway) and other members of his family as well as countless others. One writer tells us that when he knew he was dying he ordered the slaughter of leading citizens of Jericho – presumably to ensure that there would be plenty of weeping going on at the time of his funeral.
And he “gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem… under the age of two…” (Matthew 2:16). Par for the course, really; all in a day’s work.
Cruelty today is everywhere, not least involving children. Much of it is hidden, going on behind closed doors – I think of a friend who told me that as a little boy he was routinely locked in the cupboard under the stairs for no particular reason.
But when cruel people get into positions of power, well, the scope is infinite.
So, a suggestion: let’s take the example of Herod as a prompt to pray for tyrants, despots and bully-boys around the world. May God give us men and women of humility, integrity and principle to lead our nations, east and west, north and south!
And another suggestion: make 1Timothy 2:1-2 a key text for 2019…
- It was a world full of victims.
Where there is cruelty there are, of course, victims. We naturally focus on the family of Jesus as they flee to Egypt. But let’s not forget the families of Bethlehem, as Herod’s brutal soldiers come and massacre those baby boys. (Our grandson would have been in that age-group; the mere thought is unbearable.)
Many of this world’s victims are not obviously so; they lead normal lives, perhaps holding down jobs and doing ordinary things. But deep down they are carrying wounds which will never completely heal – like my friend in dark, cold terror under the stairs.
Bad behaviour, of course, should never be excused. But perhaps sometimes we need to show more patience and make more allowance when damaged people act in ways we find it hard to accept or excuse.
And as for mass victimhood – well, where do we end? Pathetic groups of people heading in tiny boats for the coast of Europe, or trudging forlornly towards the American border… the Rohingya Muslims in Burma… the untold numbers (many of them Christians) in labour camps in North Korea… the Dalit people in India and Nepal… where indeed do we end?
It is part of our Christian duty not only to pray for victims, whoever they may be, but also to offer what practical support we can. There are many charities and other organisations which need our interest and our financial backing. (How’s that for a new year resolution idea?)
Yes, the world of the baby Jesus was a dark, hurting world. And so is ours. But there were rays of light as well.
I’m speculating now, but I think we can assume that the family of Jesus would have found kindness and hospitality when they got to Egypt. There would have been many Jewish people that they could identify with, for Egypt was a long-standing place of refuge for Israelites.
Did somebody offer Joseph a job? – they would, after all, have needed money to make ends meet during the period, quite likely two or three years, that they were there. Did local women, both Jews and Egyptians, rally round to help Mary as she got used to motherhood?
It would be fascinating to know more, but, well, we just don’t. The fact is that they survived their exile and, in time, returned to the land of Israel and the city of Nazareth: the eternal light of God couldn’t be snuffed out.
Yes, Herod stands for darkness. But light does shine in the darkness! And very often it glows brightest in small but precious acts of kindness.
Do we pray to be kind people?
Lord God, help me to be the light of Jesus day by day in this dark and hurting world. Help me to be kind. Amen.