|Peter Paul Rubens' The Massacre of the Innocents|
The story of the wise men from the East who pay homage to the Christ child undermines our attempts to sentimentalize the Christmas story. Luke’s Gospel tells of angels announcing to shepherds the birth of a Savior bringing peace on earth. The shepherds rush to see the newborn, who will fulfill this hope. The familiar tableau of Madonna and child in the manger is serene and joyful, a pastoral image seemingly far removed from the centers of political power where decisions about war and peace are made. We tend to prefer Luke’s account, because it is easier to domesticate.
If Luke provides the family friendly version of the Christmas story, Matthew’s account is intended for mature audiences only. Here, the birth of the Messiah occasions conflict and intrigue at the highest levels. It is a matter of state, a threat to national security. What is implicit in Luke is explicit in Matthew: not everyone perceives the birth of Jesus as a tiding of good news.
Matthew’s Gospel tells the Christmas story as a contrast between two kings: Herod, the king chosen by Rome, and Jesus, the king chosen by God. When the wise men bring Herod news of the birth of this new king, he is frightened – and all Jerusalem with him. The Jerusalem elites are comfortable being the local proxies for their Roman overlords, complicit in a regime of structural violence that dispossessed and impoverished the rural peasantry – people like the shepherds in Luke’s Gospel.
News of the birth of a new king who would save his people – presumably from tyrants like Herod – was not good news to the Jerusalem court. For them, it meant a loss of power and prestige, an existential threat to their identity. They would no longer be in control. They would become accountable for their actions to a power even greater than that of the Roman Emperor: the power of Emmanuel, God with us. So the empire did what all empires do when threatened by regime change: the empire struck back.
Herod convened his national security council to devise an appropriate response. They advise a surgical strike to minimize collateral damage. Herod tries to co-opt the wise men, instructing them to report back on the exact location of the newborn. This is all done in secret, a covert operation. What the people don’t know won’t hurt them.
The wise men, however, have already decided to give their allegiance to this new king. Heavenly constellations were signs of the rising and falling of kings, and they remain faithful to the star they follow all the way to Bethlehem. Ironically, it is these Gentile foreigners, who recognize the legitimacy of this Jewish king and bring him tribute. The gifts they offer are no mere birthday presents. They are a pledge of allegiance, a sign of their fealty, not to the Roman Emperor, but to the Prince of Peace.
Where Herod responds with fear, the wise men respond with joy. For Herod, submission to the authority of God’s Messiah can only be a threat, a loss of identity and status. For the wise men, submission to the authority of God’s messiah is a means of attaining to a higher unity than that provided by Roman imperialism. They return to their own country, but they are not the same. They are citizens of God’s kingdom.
Herod is furious that his plans have been foiled. If a surgical strike will not do the job, then he will strike with shock and awe. All the children of Bethlehem under the age of two are put to the sword. Joseph and Mary flee with their toddler to Egypt, tipped off by a dream just in the nick of time. There, they live as refugees until Herod’s death, and then return to Nazareth in the north, out of the reach of Herod’s heir in Judea.
Luke’s birth narrative concludes with Jesus’ "bar mitzvah" in the Temple, astounding the priests with his knowledge. Matthew’s birth narrative concludes with the boy Jesus returning from exile, but giving a wide berth to Jerusalem. Matthew’s account makes clear the indiscriminant and illegitimate violence through which imperial power is exercised. His version directly challenges us to consider our own response to the birth of Jesus, and our willingness to pledge our allegiance to his kingdom of justice and peace.
When our lives are driven by fear, we retreat into narrow loyalties and the willful destruction of anything that threatens our identity and security. Even the gift of God’s love and forgiveness can feel like a threat when our ultimate trust is in the coercive power of the state.
The joyful reception of the birth of God-with-us, the power of love and forgiveness to heal and make new, transcends narrow loyalties and partial identities in recognition of the universality of God’s gracious rule. We can no longer give our allegiance to anything less than God’s kingdom. Like the wise men, we return to our own country, but we are citizens of the world.
Matthew’s Gospel is unrelenting in its portrayal of the normalcy of violence: the making victims of innocent children and the putting to flight of refugees for the sake of national security; the secrecy and surveillance through which illegitimate power seeks to cloak and protect itself. Empire resists the coming of the light. It prefers to operate in the darkness.
But now that the light has come, to whom will we offer our tribute, in whose service will we put our gifts to work? Are we frightened by the coming of Jesus or overwhelmed with joy? I guess it depends, in part, on whether or not we trust the power of love more than the power of violence to save our world.