We Three Kings of Orient Are

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“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go”. Ha, ha, that’s a joke, right? It’s been looking like Christmas for weeks if not months now. Ben Franklin’s caustic thoughts on fish and houseguests come to mind. But Poor Richard’s centuries old take misses the anxiety, the sense of mounting obligation, the daily increase in unmet expectations, the frustration, that is the Christmas marathon.

What is Christmas anyway? A simple question. An obvious answer. But I’m still unclear. For sure, no mistaking it, Christmas is the awesome turbocharged engine of commerce. No question at all about that. Despite all of the tense shopping, blown budgets and one finger salutes out in traffic, the Christmas hype keeps talking about the “true meaning of Christmas” without actually saying what it is. Somehow you get the idea that the “true meaning of Christmas” circles around the idea of love. But what does love have to do with commerce?

And all of the anxiety that comes with it, what does anxiety have to do with love? Well, my teen aged self could probably weigh in on that question based on personal experience. But is it really love, mixed with healthy doses of guilt? Is Christmas the time to show that love, or to ease the ache of that guilt, in a real way? But why is that?

Quit being obscure Captain Bracer, Christmas is about Christmas, the Mass for Christ – “Christes Maesse”! Well that makes sense, I guess, other than the obvious questions, what is a Mass? And who is Christ? Wikipedia informs me that a Mass is a celebration of death and that Jesus Christ was an itinerant Jewish rabbi of the First Century CE. ??? Wikipedia is saying that the engine powering 21st Century America consumers is built to celebrate the death of an obscure Jewish rabbi who lived in Far-off-istan two thousand years ago? Excuse me, but I’m having a hard time following the logic here.

And what is all this background noise, this idea of something about a baby and barnyard animals? What does the death of a two thousand year old Jewish rabbi have to do with a baby in a stable? And who is this guy in the red suit with the flying snow sled? How does he fit in? And why do people spend gazillions of dollars as a result, or in celebration, or just because? Well, I’m guessing you all know the answer, but you have to admit the logic is a bit of a stretch.

Christmas is an obvious presence in the world, an avalanche sweeping the American, if not the world’s economy, before it. Christmas is everywhere but amazingly, we are growing increasingly uneasy in acknowledging it. One might pause to recognize this increasingly common feature of American life, a studied refusal to recognize the obvious. The more educated our culture becomes; the more elusive is the obvious. Christmas is everywhere but the times – they are a-changin’.

Even the most obtuse among us knows that Christmas is somehow connected to Christianity. So even if we don’t have a clue about Christ or Christianity, we’re still afraid that greeting someone with a “Merry Christmas” might be offensive or intrude on someone’s right to harbor a hatred of the culture they live in. It’s Christmas, but what if we aren’t Christians? Everybody wants the benefits of Christian civilization, but often insist on the right to live in denial. Genuflecting before the delicate bullies in the public square, polite folks now greet each other with the bland but safe “Happy Holidays” or “Seasons Greetings”.

It’s difficult to come to grips with Christmas and Christianity in the constrained space of Twitter or a Facebook post. Armed with the Christian’s faith and knowledge, it is possible to navigate the river rapids of Christmas, but for others Christmas can be a rough flight into the cloudbanks of fancy.

Always in the market for an obscure metaphor, Christmas is a bit like a black hole. In the America of today, you know Christmas is there. You can’t escape its grip. The pyrotechnics of the event horizon make for a spectacular light show. Yet the source is unseen. It is there, but it is unseen and unknown.

We are celebrating our culture’s largest and splashiest festival, but we are ignorant of what its all about. Christmas is increasingly outside our culture’s circle of understanding. But even as our understanding slips away, the memory of its power remains. Remembering its grip but ignorant of its meaning, we react in confusion, fearful we might offend someone.

Continuing in the vein of metaphor, one suspects that Christmas has become a generic term as happened to Kleenex. The success of Kimberley-Clark’s Kleenex brand made Kleenex into a household name, recognized by everyone. But in that success, Kimberley-Clark lost control and ownership. In the same way, Western Christianity brought Christmas to the world, but has long since lost control. Now even the connection between Christmas and Christianity is almost gone. Perhaps the pastors in many mainline Protestant denominations are now asking themselves the question, “Is Kimberley-Clark still in business?”

Ours is the age of personal choice, whether of our toothpaste or which sex we choose to be this week. Christmas is too important to the business interests of too many corporations, even more important if that were possible to the fund raising of all NGO’s – or charities as they used to be known. Christmas is not going away.

But in America at least Christianity is becoming the love that dares not say its name. Which means the connection between Christmas and Christianity is a problem, a real problem. The preoccupation, the overwhelming need, of Adorable America to signal its virtue requires the exile of public Christianity to the dusty closet of its ignorant and irrelevant past. But in so doing, Adorable America must tread a torturous path between supporting the Christmas splash in the public square of commerce while removing its fangs.

Increasingly the future direction of Christmas in America is on display. The educated and the civil among us, the Adorables, see it as a time to “give back”, an obligation to tip those providing services to us, a time to either savor or endure the coming together of friends and family, a time to wallow in the bathos of Hollywood’s vision of “the true meaning of Christmas”. The rest of society, the unwashed masses, the hoi polloi, the Deplorables will either hunker down in their churches or continue down the road pioneered by Frank Costanza with Festivus (Festivus episode of Seinfeld).

Perhaps the loss of Christmas will be good for Christianity. The hard experience of twenty centuries tells us that Christianity seems to lose its way among the powerful and prosperous. And America is definitely powerful and prosperous. In Jesus’ own words:

“I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Matthew 19:23-26

From one very detached point of view, the separation of Christmas from Christianity might be no great loss. Almost everything in the public square relating to Christmas is sadly deficient both theologically and historically. Is it better for Christians to find comfort in a pleasant fable, universally celebrated but in the service of cynics and opportunists, or to simply recognize the corruption of the sacred and celebrate it privately? It is not for me to say, or even to advise. I will simply watch the battle lines, the conflicts and their consequences, as my children take over the world and my grandchildren grow into their own.

But as I watch the crèches in the town square dissolve into a cacophony of Festivus Poles and Kwanzaa Mahindi corn stalks, I do regret the missed opportunities for my children, my grandchildren and my country to learn valuable lessons about ourselves from the first “Christmas”. Of course, those who study the Word or attend church will continue to be exposed to the awesome wonder of God’s entrance into our world. But there we are blinded by the magnificence of the spiritual event horizon, the birth of our Savior, the entrance of God into the world as a human being.

But it is also a good thing for the citizens of a democracy to soak in the object lessons contained within Scripture, true and unvarnished stories of human beings like ourselves in another place and time. Our right to vote, our Republic, is a precious and rare gift, but the stewardship required to retain that gift for future generations requires thoughtful consideration by its citizens of the world and of men. The Bible excels in providing a clear-eyed picture of the world and men if we will only look.

Our nation is waist deep in the morass that is the Middle East. While Deplorable America’s youth provide the manpower for a military mired in futile nation building, the nation’s Adorables seek to prove their virtue by trashing America’s energy industries, acting as drunken gamblers raising the stakes in the shaky Jenga game that is the Middle East.

Whether for oil or our irresistible addiction to moral crusades we are enmeshed in the coils of an alien land. To Western eyes, particularly secular eyes, the Middle East is an incomprehensible mish mash of religious sects, ethnic groupings and nebulous nations. The people living in those tragic lands appear, at least to us, irrational in their deep seated hatreds and willingness to put vengeance for long ago wrongs ahead of today’s self interest.

In our hubris complete with its complementary need for self-flagellation, today’s narrative assumes as a given that the ills besetting the Middle East are our fault, our responsibility. Depending on whether we listen to talk radio or Public Radio, we blame George Bush, Bill Clinton, the British or American oil companies as the culprit for the current mess. The Adorables, in their enlightened way, are smug in the knowledge that the real cause of the present morass is Western Christianity’s sponsorship of Crusades in the Middle Ages.

But the Christmas Story in Matthew’s gospel hints at different realities. The Christmas Story is one of the many great dramas contained in the Bible. Perhaps one of the reasons the Bible has faded away in our world is because we, as Christians, have taken its drama and its humanity away. We have taken the subtle, textured, many layered dramas of the Bible and made children’s stories of them, pre-school children’s stories. While I treasure the stories I learned in Sunday School, they are only a cartoon version of the masterpieces they are drawn from.

Perhaps the wider culture has moved away from the Bible stories because we as Christians only use the Bible in the service of our religion rather than in the living out of our faith. The Bible is our hammer for admonishing “sinners” and the unread basis for our belief in Jesus. Instead of grappling with the complexity of our lives, we simply accept that the Ten Commandments are all we need to know about living a good life.

Many of us edge away from the Bible, embarrassed by what we have been taught are its thoughts on social justice, sexuality and diversity. We have taken the stories of the Bible, sanitized them or dumbed them down while forcing them into a straight jacket of pious interpretation, fearful that too close an examination might challenge our ideas, or more frightening, challenge our faith. But in our efforts to build a box around the Bible, we have blinded ourselves to the fact that we are sinners, not saints.

As so often the case, careful examination of important extras in a drama reward with valuable insights, a glimpse of underlying realities. With the exception of Christ himself, no one in Scripture is a “good” person or a “bad” person. Great men, men after God’s own heart, have feet of clay with hands bloody from satisfying their lust for other men’s wives. Women of faith hold on to their magic charms, secretly praying to other gods and coldly manipulating their families. All the men and women in the Bible are like me, doing their best to be faithful, but remaining sinners in need of salvation.

One of the interesting extras in the Christmas Story is King Herod. Herod offers an opportunity to look at villainy, to think about power and how it corrupts. King Herod of the Christmas Story is known to history as Herod the Great. At the birth of Jesus, Herod was King of the Jews and had been for the past 37 years. Now an old man, sick and paranoid, Herod is visited by emissaries of a foreign power seeking a new born king of the Jews, born in Herod’s own kingdom. Herod reacts to this news in the way that most kings would. He acts to deal with this threat to himself, and to the peace of the kingdom.

Herod’s only appearance in the Bible is in Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. Make no mistake about it. Herod is the bad guy in Matthew’s story. There is simply nothing good about him. To be sure, pretty much everything that has come down to us about Herod supports Matthew’s picture of him.

Herod is one bad dude. Matthew recounts that Herod tries to kill the baby Jesus because he fears being replaced by the prophesied Messiah. In other sources, primarily the Roman collaborator Josephus writing 75 years later and with his own axes to grind, we hear of Herod’s devious nature, his demeaning sycophancy in the presence of the powerful and most damning of all, his frequent murder of those close to him, wives, children, relatives, friends and associates. Missing is an appreciation of Herod’s reasons for his actions. Perhaps he had his reasons, good reasons.

Upon hearing from these foreign emissaries of a new king’s birth, Herod seeks to learn more of this threat. Obviously if these foreigners know of a Jewish king’s birth, the Jews themselves must know about it as well. Bringing together the wise and learned men of Jerusalem, Herod asks for some answers. After a bit of kicking the dirt, the Jewish brain trust comes up with an obscure prophesy speaking of a future king being born in Bethlehem.

“But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel.” Micah 5:2

Put yourself in Herod’s place. “Really? You guys are the best the Jews have and this is all you got? These guys, these pagans, have traveled a thousand miles because of a sign that announces the most important event in Jewish history, a sign you don’t know anything about?”

I imagine a lot of shoulder shrugging and insincere grins, but that was all that Herod was going to get from the people that were paid to know these things. And so, upon receiving this sketchy bit of intelligence, Herod orders troops into Bethlehem. Their orders: execute all male children two years old and under.

Glossing over our own treatment of unborn children, Western sensibilities are repulsed by this man and his decision to kill babies, lots of babies just because they were born in Bethlehem. We accept the brief snapshot of King Herod in Matthew. Herod is the villain in the Christmas Story, perhaps not Darth Vader but more like the Emperor Palpatine. And here the clear and broadly drawn lines required by Christmas stories for children as well as the thought habits of the Twitterverse and Facebook blind us to the realities of what we read, the realities of the world we live in, the realities of our own lives.

We read about Herod in Matthew’s account of the Christmas Story. We accept him as evil incarnate and move on. We hear about Herod, sitting in our comfortable seat in the church service, worried about our Master Card bill, unsettled by the neighborhood gossip of a married gay couple moving into the neighborhood. We have no interest in, or understanding of, Herod or his world. Just another squalid dictator, history seems full of them, what more is there to say?

We’re familiar with, in fact we have become deadened to, horror in the Middle East. If we were honest with ourselves, we would admit that we have no clue about the places, the people and the problems there. What we know, or think we know, is what the media has told us. Hmmmm, what else is the media telling me? In their defense, the media understands we have little patience for complexity. And in a real world proof of Darwinian evolution, the media has lost something it no longer needed, the ability to recognize or tell a story of any complexity.

Perhaps if we were a bit more honest with ourselves as a culture, we would cop to our real part in all the mess and take some lessons from the results. No not the Crusades, that was children playing in the dirt compared to the Mongol incursions occurring around the same time. Today’s Middle East was created 100 years ago. For centuries before that time the Middle East was a part of the Ottoman Empire. By today’s Western standards, the Ottoman Empire was a thoroughly corrupt place, governed in practice by a system of local officials little different from the Godfather of Marlin Brando. But everyone knew the rules, turned their head away from the occasional injustice, paid baksheesh to the right people and lived relatively peaceful lives in a stable environment. The Middle East of the Ottoman’s might have been decadent but it was also a real world example of present day corporate diversity officers daydream, a paradise of inclusive diversity, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-everything.

But the problem with a peaceful decadent empire is there are always others, not so peaceful or so decadent. For nearly a century the borders of the Ottoman’s had been under siege. Russia had been carving off chunks on a regular basis with France doing their usual Three-Card Monte game of aggrandizement. The recently industrialized Germans were pioneering the approach used by today’s China in the game of empire building while the British harrumphed in the streets of Cairo about threats to their lucrative franchise in Egypt and the need for Ottoman oil to fuel the Royal Navy.

Then WWI happened. The fragile Ottoman Empire in a desperate attempt to delay its looming demise, threw in with the Germans since they looked like the safe bet – Just one more bad decision in a long line of them by the Ottomans. Unprepared for the furies of modern war, the Ottoman Empire disappeared like a morning mist under a rising sun.

Modern Turkey was born on the bloody beaches of Gallipoli. The rest of the Middle East was thrown upon the mercies of the Allies, chiefly Britain and France forced to accommodate the childish vision of America’s first progressive President, Woodrow Wilson. We might remember Woodrow Wilson as a forerunner of Barack Obama, an intellectual and academically inclined idealist with very little real world experience but burdened with an utter contempt for the political process.

France and England were focused on preserving and extending their own countries commercial interests. Russia should have been a major player but Lenin had taken them out of the game. America was armed with Wilson’s blueprint for utopia. Together they created the modern Middle East. In their deliberations, they were advised and strongly influenced by a group of influential Jews, in Europe, the United States and in the Middle East. These Jews, known as Zionists, were dedicated to the idea of a Jewish homeland to be created at some future time in Palestine.

King Herod of the Christmas Story lived the same reality as today’s Middle East. In the centuries before the birth of Christ, the Successor Kingdoms ruled what we now call the Middle East in a way eerily reminiscent of the Ottomans. Upon the death of Alexander the Great some three centuries earlier, his generals had divided his newly conquered territories, creating kingdoms for themselves.

These kingdoms, called the Successor Kingdoms and ruled by their descendants, had become peaceful, corrupt and decadent. You will remember the previously mentioned problem facing peaceful decadent empires? When Herod was barely a teenager, his world was turned upside down. The Successor Kingdoms were swept away by the Romans, just as the Ottomans were swept away by the Allies.

But instead of a bumptious Winston Churchill, a lecture prone Woodrow Wilson and a toothless Clemenceau putting the pieces back together as happened after WWI, in the case of the Romans it was Gnaeus Pompey who drew the boundaries and installed the new governments. The fact that Gnaeus Pompeius called himself Pompey the Great, while his nickname on the streets of Rome was the Young Butcher, tells us a lot about who he was and the times he lived in.

I am privileged to live in the United States, a very special place. So far, God has blessed us with a nation a world apart from the common experience of nations. Though we have our problems, they are problems that people in the Middle East, whether today or in Herod’s time, would laugh at. When we look at Herod, we might remember that.

It is good for us to remember that the people and countries of the present day Middle East have a very different history than ours. Yes, people in the United States have been discriminated against and feelings have been hurt, talent has not been recognized and animals have been abused. But in the Middle East, there is not a city that has not been taken and subjected to rape and pillage, again and again and again. There is not a people group that has not been subjected to slavery or decimation by invasion, again and again and again. There is not an area that has not been turned into a barren wilderness, again and again and again. I can only thank God for his mercies to us and pray that He continue to protect America from such horrors, the common experience of the world.

The Middle East of Herod’s time was just one chapter in a very long story. But in that chapter, during Herod’s lifetime, the Middle East was repeatedly fought over in seemingly endless Roman civil wars. Judea and environs were a juicy bone fought over by large packs of junkyard dogs. After Pompey’s destruction of the old order, the armies of Julius Caesar swept away Pompey and the Republicans. Then Caesar’s successors were in turn swept away by Mark Antony and Cleopatra, who were in turn swept away by the armies of Augustus.

Even outside the brutal civil wars of the Romans there was no peace for Judea and Herod. Judea was in the middle of two empires, the Roman and the Parthian. Herod’s Judea was invaded and re-invaded by both Roman and Parthian armies. Herod’s Judea was a prize sought after by other regional kings eager to increase their holdings or impress their overlords. These local power grabs were allowed, even encouraged, by both Rome and Parthia who saw the skullduggery and saber rattling as an opportunity to weed out the weak and increase their own advantage.

Herod led a precarious life. He was not born into royalty or the priesthood. His father was an advisor to the Judean king, his mother most likely an Arab from present day Saudi Arabia. At an early age his father used his influence to get him an appointment as the governor of an area around Galilee. Even worse, Herod tried to be a good practicing Jew, but he was not a real Jew, a Jew from the line of Jacob. Herod was an Idumean, or a descendant of Esau.

Surprisingly enough, the ability to discriminate appears to be in the genes of humanity rather than a special curse fallen only to white America. Herod’s experience in Jerusalem might be compared to that of the black governor of a southern state, perhaps Alabama, right after the Civil War during Reconstruction.

Sneered at and shunned by “righteous” Jews, Herod is the king of the Jews, but only because the Roman Army says he is the king of the Jews. Not only that but the Roman Army has a new top general every few years and Herod’s job is up for grabs again. The people Herod works with every day to govern the state, the Jewish establishment, has nothing but contempt and outright hatred for him.

Our view of Herod from the Gospel of Mathew and from Josephus is damning. But then consider that he is known as Herod the Great. He ruled Judea for 40 years during the times of the Roman civil wars, during the times of Roman/Parthian/regional wars on the battlefield and in the palace backrooms. His family was a nest of vipers. When not engaged in treason, they were demanding and ungrateful. Herod ruled a people that sneered at him, though perhaps not to his face. In spite of this, Herod’s Judea was a very prosperous place in a very troubled time.

Herod was no coward, no office politician of the kind familiar in Modern American leadership. Herod barely escaped death, leading troops in a vain attempt to halt the Parthian siege of Jerusalem. His brother died in that same battle. Even though religious Jews hated him, he built the largest Jewish Temple of the three in Jewish history. One of the most visited and sacred sites in today’s Jerusalem, the Wailing Wall, is all that remains of the temple built by Herod. He did much to keep Judea safe and prosperous in a very troubled time. Stopping someone in the streets of Jerusalem and asking them about Herod, would have brought a thumbs up from the Deplorables of the day.

Seeing Herod through the eyes of the Gospel writer, Matthew, we see a bad man, a man who tried to kill a baby, not just any baby, but our Lord and Savior. But what if we had been in Herod’s place and known what Herod knew? What would we have done?

We are told that Herod learned of Jesus birth from wise men from the East. These wise men had astrology as part of their job description and they had seen a sign that caused them to travel far seeking the birth of the “King of the Jews”, the Promised One, the Messiah. These wise men, the Magi, wished to worship this new born king.

As Christians, living today, we simply see these Magi as believers, like ourselves, traveling far to offer worship at the birth of Jesus Christ, our Messiah. What could be more natural, particularly when presented by Matthew as a counterpoint to the evil of King Herod. We have the elements of a well told story, the bad guy played by King Herod and the good guys played by the Magi.

Who were these Magi? Where did they come from? These wise men, or kings, or Magi from the East could only have been important and high ranking officials of the Parthian Empire, Rome’s great enemy. We might see them today as the equivalent of religious/government officials, ayatollahs from Tehran arriving in Baghdad or Damascus right before a critical election or negotiation. It is thought that the sign, the Bethlehem Star that brought these wise men to Judea, was the legacy of Daniel.

An unasked question in Mathew is “what sign”? Imagine – religious officials travel a thousand miles from the depths of “pagan” country because they have seen a sign signaling the birth of the Jewish Messiah. Further, the entire Jewish nation, including prophets, rabbis, Pharisees, etc., has not seen and is totally unaware of this sign and this birth, the birth of their Messiah that has been foretold for hundreds of years. Even God, as far as is known, had not let anyone in on the significance of this sign. But as we know from Matthew, this sign is a true sign, whatever it was.

How could this be? This makes no human sense. The entire body of Jewish priests and prophets don’t have a clue about the sign announcing the most important event in their history? Even two thousand years later, we have no clue what this sign was, but it was clear enough to send very important people, pagan priests alien to either Jewish or Christian life, a thousand miles in acknowledgement.

Logic suggests that Daniel was the genesis of this sign. Daniel must have left an extra biblical prophesy in the hands of the Magi. Daniel was a Jewish prophet in Babylonian captivity some four hundred years before. Daniel, a true prophet of God credited with a key book in the Old Testament, had been the leader of the Magi at that time and as we know from his writings, had been given prophetic sight of the future by God.

Left unsaid in Matthew is that King Herod knew the Parthians, and most probably the Magi, well. As noted earlier, Parthia had invaded Judea and captured Jerusalem when Herod was thirty years old. Herod had commanded troops defending Jerusalem, barely escaping with his life when it was taken. His older brother was captured in the fall of the city and in the butchery that followed his brother had either committed suicide or been executed.

Returning a few years later with the Roman legions that retook Jerusalem, Herod had been appointed the Governor of Judea. The Romans, in the person of Mark Antony of Antony & Cleopatra fame, found Herod to be a competent and shrewd man capable of controlling an important and fractious piece of the Empire’s eastern frontier. Herod could keep the notoriously fractious Jews in line, deal with Parthia and hold his own in the regional snake pit.

As is often the case, small weak nations on the borders between two powerful empires are split between those who support one empire and those who support another. So it was with Judea. The urbane and cultured elite of Judea was comfortable with Roman control. The Pharisees and the priestly caste supported the Parthians. It wasn’t like anybody but the Zealots thought Judea could actually be free of foreign control.

Thus we can perhaps imagine King Herod, a past master in the games of intrigue and power, questioning the motives of this suddenly appearing group of foreign dignitaries. “What sign is this? Can you show it to me? Only you can see it? The entire Jewish religious establishment is in Jerusalem and they’ve never heard of this sign. What’s going on here?”

Matthew says that the coming of these wise men, these Magi, from Parthia troubled the entire city of Jerusalem. The presence of the Magi in Jerusalem was no secret. The high official status of the Magi and the tension between Rome and Parthia dictated that they traveled with a large military escort for protection and to uphold the dignity of their office.

It was probably not a few Secret Service agents, but a force to be reckoned with, a wing of the fearsome Parthian cataphracts – heavy armored cavalry that had destroyed the massed Roman legions of Marcus Crassus at Carrhae. One might think of it as an American aircraft carrier sailing into the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas with no advance notice seeking to meet an unknown Kurdish chieftan. Even under the best of circumstances, Herod knew that his Roman masters would expect an explanation, a good explanation, of why a high level Parthian mission was in Jerusalem.

Herod’s Roman master, the Emperor Augustus or the First Citizen of Rome as he preferred to be called, had a history with Herod, a difficult history. Augustus appreciated Herod’s talent, but there was the unfortunate fact of Herod’s children, his wives and relatives. Herod’s extended and fractious family was unsatisfied with their position in life but lacked Herod’s ability to navigate the uncertain politics of the times.

But despite their repeatedly demonstrated incompetence, Herod’s extended family continued to seek adventure, fame and fortune. Time after time, Herod had to cover for the sins of his family, humbly begging Augustus for forgiveness, as they conspired with disreputable Roman adventurers seeking to build fortunes, disturbing the status quo in the Middle East, threatening the fragile peace of the region. Herod had his job as king because he was supposed to collect the taxes and take care of problems. One of these times, Augustus was going to say –“Enough”.

It would be reasonable for all responsible parties in Jerusalem and Rome to wonder at the timing of the visit as well, signs and wonders aside. Between the writings of Matthew and Josephus, we conclude that Herod died of natural causes very shortly after the visit of the wise men. Herod was an old man, closing in on 65 years of age at this time, well worn and suffering an acutely painful ulceration of his bowels, a condition that would shortly kill him. Practical men, in Jerusalem, in Rome and in Ctesiphon the Parthian capital were making bets on the future administration. The sudden appearance of a powerful Parthian delegation in search of “the King of the Jews” invited suspicion.

The Magi found the infant Jesus and worshipped him. Leaving by a different route, they returned into the Parthian Empire from which they had come. Was their gifts and homage to the infant Jesus honest worship or subterfuge, an attempt to create trouble for Rome during a time of regime change in a sensitive province on their borders? Did they come because of a sign or did they only use the idea of a sign, a sign unknown now and at the time, as an excuse? According to Matthew, they did find Jesus. By whatever means and by whatever sign, they did find their way. Only the long dead Magi and God know the true story of the Bethlehem Star and their visit. Does it matter? God uses both saints and sinners to bring Him glory, but he is inscrutable as to how.

Christmas – the celebration of Jesus’ birth – has always been a time of mixed motives, a time when the sacred and the secular share an uneasy place in space/time and in our hearts. Power politics, jealousy and murder were a part of the first Christmas. But it was also a time of angel choirs and the birth of God’s own son.

At some level, we know that Jesus was not born on December 25. The actual date of his birth has been lost to human history. Who records the birth dates of peasant laborers in the countryside anyway? Perhaps Mary did not even share it with anyone. The date chosen, December 25, coincides with the Roman festival of Saturnalia. Rome’s Saturnalia celebrated a long lost Golden Age featuring feasting, gift giving and a general license to break all the rules. The fact that Christmas, or the Saturnalia, coincided with the Winter Solstice, a time of festival in almost all Northern Hemisphere cultures probably solidified its grip.

I spend much of December in a grumpy mood. I know that’s wrong. Just as all the carols say, joy is the proper response to Christ’s birth. But so little of the season is spent relating to the birth of our Savior. It’s cars in traffic, elbows in crowded stores, anxiety over gifts, cards, parties, events. All of the people, all of the rush, all of the stuff that comes with Christmas just grind me down. Maybe it’s just that my thin layer of smiling humanity is worn away, leaving my sour nature bare.

But then, every Christmas season, someplace or somewhen, usually at Christmas Eve service, I sing a candlelit Silent Night or hear the Hallelujah Chorus on the car radio and I am overcome. My heart is flooded with what I can only describe as joy, as a touch of God’s grace. It is a moment that I treasure, a moment unlike any else. I feel that touch in my heart, that connection to a God who loves me, in spite of me.

Christmas is special in a way that overpowers all else. Two thousand years ago God came to us as a baby. He lived and died for us, to give us a way out of the hole we are in. Perhaps God has given us Christmas as an object lesson. Jesus was asked to name the most important laws for men to obey, to live justly and at peace with God, creation and men. Jesus gave us these two commandments, saying that all of God’s Law for us was contained in them.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind.

“Love your neighbor as yourself”

Christmas is a time in which we seek to honor God. Maybe non-Christians can leave out the part about honoring God, but remember the endless reminding of “the real meaning of Christmas”. Wink wink the answer is love in case you couldn’t figure it out, love for our fellow man. Judging by the full court press thrown by commerce and media, looking at that spectacular display of the event horizon, it is as close to all our soul, heart, strength and mind as we can get.

Take a look at the result of our best efforts to obey the two commandments during the Christmas season in 2018. Need more proof for why the original Christmas had to happen?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Responses to “We Three Kings of Orient Are”

  1. Judy Hoxworth says:

    I share completely your opinion of Christmas and what I would call a depressed mood. I didn’t used to feel this way but life and what Christmas has now become has brought me to a sad despair. I think when we lose most of our family and then watch the reality of our times, it brings us down. Thank God for the small things like Christmas Eve service and the words of the songs that touch our hearts once again. I’m going to send this to the interim Pastor at the church… t think he would enjoy reading it!

  2. Geoff Singleton says:

    Yes-it’s not Happy Holidays -it’s Merry Christmas. Put the Christ back into Christmas.

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  • What I’m Reading

    What I’m Reading

    The Twelfth Department
    By William Ryan

    What happens when we forget, or never bothered to learn, what we believe in and why we believe? What happens when the emotional whirls of Facebook and Twitter are the depths of our understanding? Evil, great evil, is regularly found lurking in the unexamined depths of good intentions. Mathew Arnold put our present political climate in memorable words years ago:

    And we are here as on a darkling plain
    Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
    Where ignorant armies clash by night

    Novels, good stories, provide a lens to see life, including our beliefs, without camouflage. As an example, JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of the finest Bible commentaries ever written. Progressive political ideals may lack in recent electoral success, but have undisputed possession of today’s moral high ground. And while death and taxes may be the only sure bets, the eventual victory of those holding the high ground have very good odds in any battle.
    And so fiction provides a look at eventual victories. There is no question that the outlines of today’s progressive agenda can be clearly seen in other times and places. William Ryan takes us to a time and place fondly imagined, idealized at the time, by the forefather’s of todays progressive leadership. In The Twelfth Department, we see a police captain in 1930’s Moscow. Captain Alexei Korolev is just a man trying to be a good father, a good citizen, a good police officer. In many ways Alexei is a fortunate man, with a good reputation and many more material advantages than the average citizen. But a high profile murder brings him into ambiguous circumstances. The tone of the book is respectful of life in Moscow, with no axes to grind. It is just a portrait of a man trying to do his job, bringing a gruesome killer to justice, among ordinary human beings seeking only to live normal lives in a progressive paradise.

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