This is a reminder to us of the cost of God coming to our world as a sign of contradiction. The coming of God in Jesus revealed what a human being is meant to be, and this has rightly and repeatedly been taken as a rebuke by those who find other people a threat or an obstacle to their agendas.
Herod exercised standard practice by ordering the murder of many children to snare a single child who might be his rival.
We know from the history books, more than the Bible, that Herod was a past master in the art of assassination. He had no sooner come to the throne than he began by annihilating the Sanhedrin, the supreme court of the Jews. Later he slaughtered 300 court officers out of hand. He also murdered his wife Mariamne and her mother Alexandra, his eldest son Antipater, and two other sons, Alexander and Aristobulus. And in the hour of his death he arranged for the slaughter of the notable men of Jerusalem. Apparently after his death, this later order was not carried out.
Herod put to death members of his own family, yet scrupulously kept Jewish dietary laws, such as not eating pork. This provoked Emperor Augustus of Rome to joke; “I’d rather be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.”
It was not to be expected that Herod would calmly accept the news that a child had been born who was going to be king. We have read how he had carefully enquired of the wise men when they had seen the star. Even then he was craftily working out the age of the child so that he might take steps towards murder, and now he put his plans into swift and savage action. He gave orders that every child under two years of age in Bethlehem and the surrounding district should be slaughtered.
There are two things which we must note. Bethlehem was not a large town, and the number of the children would not have exceeded 20 to 30 babies. We must not think in terms of hundreds. It is true that this does not make Herod’s crime any the less terrible, but we must get the picture right.
Secondly, there are certain critics who hold that this slaughter cannot have taken place because there is no mention of it in any writer outside this one passage of the New Testament. The Jewish historian Josephus, for instance, does not mention it. There are two things to be said: First, as we have just seen, Bethlehem was a comparatively small place, and in a land where murder was so widespread the slaughter of 20 or 30 babies would cause little stir, and would mean very little except to the broken-hearted mothers of Bethlehem. The fact that a thing is not mentioned, even in the places where one might expect it to be mentioned, is no proof at all that it did not happen. The whole incident is so typical of Herod that we need not doubt that Matthew is passing the truth down to us.
Here is a terrible illustration of what men will do to get rid of Jesus Christ. If a man is set on his own way, if he sees in Christ someone who is liable to interfere with his ambitions and rebuke his ways, his one desire is to eliminate Christ; and then he is driven to the most terrible things, for if he does not break men’s bodies, he will break their hearts.
The infant Jesus was spared by a quick thinking Joseph who was tipped off by an angel, while other families became the first martyrs of the Christian era, which would eventually lead to the beheading of John the Baptist, the crucifixion of Jesus and the stoning of Stephen.
What is it about the gospel of love that so threatens power? If only love was so contagious as the fear that spirals out of control once violence is used to take power or to get even. So many conflicts once started, take generations to halt the cycles of revenge.
To proclaim Christmas is to expose the futility of force to move history forward instead of in circles. The greatest power humanity holds is the power to give life. Only the work of reconciliation and the hard labour of forgiveness can revive humanity.The full power of the Gospel is inseparable from the tears of Rachel and the blood of martyrs, or as expressed by the old man Simeon’s prediction that, “the sword would pierce the heart of Mary” (Luke 2:35). They, too, are part of the Christmas story.
I conclude by asking you to reflect on the following:
1. To what extent does our own self-love threaten our love for others? “The whole worth of a deed lies in the love that inspired it.” (The Talmud).
2. Jesus lived in violent times as portrayed in Herod’s killing of the eldest boys in Bethlehem. Last year we were shocked by the violent and tragic incident where one prisoner shot dead two others and then took his own life. On Wednesday December 28 this paper opened with the headline, two days after the nation celebrated the feast of Christmas: “Violence, accidents and thefts mar break”. A writer in this paper on the 30th of December made this comment, “What better subject to talk about at this time of year than drinking and partying and the risks culprits pose to innocent road users.” My question is “Are we talking about these topics?”
3. Jesus taught that the true battlefield, where violence and peace meet, is the human heart; for “it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” (Mark 7: 21)
If violence has its source in the human heart, then it is fundamental that non-violence be practised before all else within families. Pope Francis said of the family, “that it is the indispensable crucible in which spouses, parents, children, brothers and sisters, learn to communicate and to show generous concern for one another, and in which frictions and even conflicts have to be resolved not by force but by dialogue, respect, concern for the good of the other, mercy and forgiveness. From within families, the joy of love spills out into the world and radiates to the whole of society.”
Is my family free of domestic violence and the abuse of women and children?
Sourced from William Barclay Daily Bible Study World Day of Peace. January 1, 2017. Pope Francis 1st.
Bishop Paul Donoghue Catholic Church.