Elements of the Christmas story often resonate with contemporary life The characters of the story, together with their actions, also reflect those of people we still see today. Herod, and his response to the birth of Jesus, as can be read in the second chapter of St. Matthew’s gospel, is a good example. Herod’s cunning and murderous nature is replicated in the acts of similar despots today. Herod was appointed king by the Romans in the year 40 BC. From what we know about Herod, he was a suspicious and cruel man capable of the most ruthless acts, if by committing these acts, he made his own position more secure. Like most tyrant he was paranoid, to the extent that even his own family were not exempt from his suspicious nature: at various times he had murdered his wife, her mother and three of his sons.
Matthew, then, in writing his account of the birth of Jesus, seems to have got it right about Herod in the way that we might expect him to react to the news of the birth of a rival king. His murder of the children of Bethlehem was also in character of what might have been expected of Herod the Great, and that act in itself was responsible for the introduction of another element of the nativity story: the flight into Egypt. Joseph is warned in a dream of the danger to the newly born Jesus so the family flee into exile to Egypt. Joseph and Mary become refugees. Escaping the danger that Herod poses to Jesus they travel to the safety of a foreign land, there to remain until the danger recedes when Herod dies.
Uncanny, isn’t it how these old stories are replayed in our own lifetimes? This passing year has seen the crisis of the refugees, fleeing from the civil war in Syria and similar tyrants, leaving behind the carnage that has forced them to seek refuge in an alien land. I couldn’t imagine even that could drive me out of my own country, could you? I couldn’t even contemplate leaving family and friends behind to go and live in a culture that was so very different to that which I was used, could you?
Leaving aside the rhetoric that has surrounded the refugee crisis, and the inevitable remarks about ‘those who jump on the band wagon’ in order to use the crisis as a way of gaining entry to Europe (comments I’m quick to admit that may have some substance to them), we can’t deny that most of the refugees are running away from the life they have left behind out of sheer desperation and the desire for their children to be safe. Mary, Joseph and Jesus were in a similar position and the sad thing we note about the similarity between the nativity story and the refugee crisis of modern times is that not much has altered or changed over the two thousand years that have elapsed, and not much has been learned either. The coming of Jesus into our world can, I think, be looked on as a watershed moment in the history of the world. The life of Jesus and His words challenged the status quo of life that was the norm for His contemporaries, both in terms of how people lived their lives and in terms of how they looked upon God, and they continue to challenge us today, too. If Jesus and His words were rejected by some of the people who knew and heard Him, then He is just as likely to be rejected by people today – and is.
The course of events in our world today leads us to the conclusion that the world is still an uncertain place and that we still have despots and tyrants capable of manipulating lives and destroying them. The message of Christmas though is one of confidence in the future; for the words of Jesus are still spoken and read and remembered because they are words that give us hope. Hope in the goodness of God who sent Jesus to us – and hope in humanity, proof of which we have seen in the response of many individuals to the needs of the refugees coming into Europe. The words of despots and tyrants and their evil influence, normally, die with them. The good that people do continues after them, influencing for the good those they have touched.
A Happy Christmas and a Peaceful New Year.
(This article by Rev Robert Williams was originally published as part of St David’s Messenger in December 2015)