While Christmas is often regarded as a holiday for children, the aftermath of the story is decidedly not. Most of us would rather not include the epilogue—the part where Herod kills all the baby boys in Bethlehem in order to eliminate the one who is a threat.
“Before the Prince of Peace had learned to walk and talk,” says theologian Tom Wright, “he was a homeless refugee with a price on his head.”
Why would Herod be threatened by a baby?
“As his power had increased, so had his paranoia—a not unfamiliar progression, as dictators around the world have shown from that day to this,” says Wright.
Nobody knows how many innocents were massacred in Bethlehem. Some say 3,000; others say 64,000—or even 144,000. A few say the town was so small that it is more likely that the number was only 6 or 7. Traditional liturgies call it 14,000.
It happens that 14,000 is also the number of unaccompanied immigrant children currently in US government custody (a figure reported in late November by the Department of Health and Human Services). Being held in custody is not the same as the plight suffered by the babes of Bethlehem, of course. But many churches— especially Orthodox and Catholic ones—observe Holy Innocents Day as a time to remember all children who suffer. Children the world over are fleeing violence and seeking asylum.
The situation in Yemen is particularly brutal: 85,000 children under the age of five are said to have starved to death between April 2015 and October 2018, according to Save the Children, and 5 million face famine.
This slow death is surely a slaughter of innocents. If we are appalled by Herod in Matthew’s Gospel, then we should also be appalled by the Herods of our day. In the age-old clash between the weak and the powerful, the powerful are somehow threatened by the weak. As spoken in a Greek Orthodox liturgy, “Herod was troubled and mowed down the children like wheat; for he lamented that his power would soon be destroyed.”
We are followers of the baby who escaped from Bethlehem and found refuge in a foreign country. That tells us whose power is worth trusting.
Wendy McFadden is publisher of Brethren Press and Communications for the Church of the Brethren.