Advent: Part 1
'When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.' - Matthew 2 v 16
It’s rare we get a 100% full-blooded baddie nowadays.
Pop culture villains like Walter White from Breaking Bad or President Alma Coin in The Hunger Games or even poor old Jaimie 'Give me a High Five' Lannister in A Game of Thrones are much more complex characters. They’re baddies, sure, or at least anti-heroes, but through them their authors explore the nature of evil in a very human way. They ask questions about who we are and what we’re capable of. They reconcile evil acts as acceptable, even sensible in their character’s respective circumstances. It’s a very contemporary way of exploring the darker side of human nature. It shows an understanding that even the most appalling act can be rationalised by a desperate mind. It might even be argued that the only thing that separates a hero from a villain is that the author (or history) is on their side.
'No one thinks himself a villain, and few make decisions they think are wrong. A person may dislike his choice, but he will stand by it because, even in the worst circumstances, he believes that it was the best option available to him at the time.' - Christopher Paolini
No such nuance for King Herod. He is an archetypal bad egg. If the writer of Matthew’s gospel had been a little more florid in his descriptions, you can bet they’d be some quality moustache twirling going on. Maybe the odd maniacal cackle?
Matthew paints Herod as a King who was so threatened by the birth of the prophesised son of God that he decreed all children in Bethlehem under the age of two were to be murdered. It’s an act so inhumane that the immediate and unplanned flight of Mary and Joseph, with their infant son, is easy to understand.
For those of us who have held a baby in our arms, felt the fluttering heartbeat of a new life against us, the idea of causing it harm is beyond comprehension. It represents the worst of us.
So, Herod - not a nice man.
Two thousand Christmases later, there are 65 million people fleeing violence and death in the world - not unlike the terrors unleashed in these Gospel accounts.
The very existence of refugees at our doorsteps - at camps in Europe, in boats on the Mediterranean or clambering out of the backs of lorries in Dover - should be enough to spur us into action. Desperate times such as these are not the time for soul searching.
The presence of refugees in our lives, here, today, is a reminder that the kind of evil which the Bible portrays in the character of Herod persists. It's not nuanced. It's real and terrifying.
So, as we enter advent, in a spirit of hope and the coming of our new-born king, let’s act.
We are all the heroes of our own stories but perhaps we could try a little harder to be worthy of that.