Sometimes I wonder if our nativity scenes should include—off to the side—the figure of a nervous King Herod, scheming to kill the newborn Jesus. This would certainly add a dark tone to some Christmas cards, but it might help balance out the overly-sentimental notions we can develop about what this baby came to do.
A nativity scene...including King Herod?
When I was in uni, I remember my professor, Stanley Hauerwas, saying, “No one killed Jesus because he wanted people to love one another. He was killed because he challenged the powers that be.” And what he challenged was the idolatrous degree of trust and allegiance that people attribute to them.
That has always stuck with me. I encourage my students to make sure that, when they think of Jesus, they think about not only a preacher who promotes the Golden Rule but also an authority who rules a Kingdom. The latter brings into focus the question of trust and loyalty.
Every wise king calls for—and works hard to gain and keep—the trust of his subjects. If people trust the ruler as the person to look to for protection and security, he will be more able to rely on their support, obedience and sacrifice.
It is therefore a serious thing for a ruler to have his authority challenged or for someone to direct his people’s trust in a different direction. But this is what Jesus does. He calls people to look to himself for protection from their most harmful enemies (not necessary the ones reported by ABC News) and provision of what they truly need to flourish (not necessarily what consumer marketing campaigns portray). Jesus acknowledged the legitimacy of civil government and submitted to the authorities of his day, but he denounced attributing to them more trust and hope than is proper. He calls all citizens to give their highest allegiance—their ultimate loyalty—their deepest sacrifice—to him rather than to any earthly governor.
This is the kind of mission that will get you killed!
I think Christmas is a time when we often forget this. With the shepherds we rightly focus on the news of a newborn “Saviour…the Messiah” who takes away our sins (Luke 2:11). But we need to acknowledge with the Magi that this baby is also a long-awaited king.
That would certainly explain Herod’s reaction upon talking to these wise men (Matt 2:2-3). He wanted to kill the baby, not because Jesus might become a great moral teacher who warmed people’s hearts, but because the prophets foretold that he would rule over an ever-lasting kingdom.
This Christmas, as we sing songs of a quiet infant, tender and mild, let us not forget that the Incarnation poses a defining, authoritative challenge. The challenge has to do with where we place our hearts, our loyalties and our loves.
Christmas is the birth into human history of the One who has the greatest power to protect, to save from enemies, and to overcome threats to a good life. Christmas is the birth of the true King. This calls for a response of re-evaluating our priorities, identifying where we have misplaced our trust, repenting of our willingness to grant authority to idolatrous powers, and recommitting to a life lived under His reign.
In the new year, may our hearts prepare Him room, and may earth receive her King!
The 2015 Book-I-Appreciated-That-You-Might-Be-Interested-In Award goes to Rod Dreher’s How Dante Can Save Your Life.
I’m very excited about students in the Millis Institute reading Dante’s Divine Comedy—I even have in mind a weekend retreat where they immerse themselves in “history’s greatest poem.” So I was pleased to discover how seamlessly Dreher weaves the Divine Comedy into his own experience.
If anyone wonders “what good reading old books” can do—or what benefit there is in studying the liberal arts—here’s a great answer!
Dreher tells the true story of how, after becoming a well-known author and columnist in Washington, DC, he moved home to Louisiana to be with his family in need. Let’s just say that things didn’t go so well, and Dreher soon discovered that “There is no exile quite like being a stranger in the midst of your own family.”
At this point he picked up the Divine Comedy, which Dante conceived in the 13th Century while in exile from his beloved hometown of Florence. As Dreher reads about different characters inhabiting different levels of heaven and hell, the insights he acquires are life-transforming.
For instance, in the circle of hell reserved for the violent, Dante encounters Brunetto Latini, who had lived as one of Italy’s most distinguished statesmen and scholars. Brunetto counsels Dante that the purpose of writing is to win worldly fame. Dreher, a writer himself, learns an important lesson from this episode and concludes:
How much happier would young people be if they began their careers thinking not of the fame, fortune, and glory they will receive from professional accomplishment but rather of the good they can do for others. …
I knew now that we condemn ourselves to misery not so much because of what we hate but because of what we love and the way we love … loving and desiring good things in the wrong way.
Along the literary journey, Dante teaches Dreher not to despise the disappointment and depression he experiences, but instead to use it as an opportunity to evaluate his (misplaced) loves and to direct his desires and expectations toward God. “Suffering comes to everyone. It’s the human condition. What you do with that suffering determines whether or not you remain an earthbound caterpillar or metamorphose into a butterfly.”
That’s pretty good advice from an old poem, and we look forward to exploring it further with our students at the Millis Institute.