Last December, I went with a group of Catholic university friends on a mission trip to Cambodia, to an education centre run by the Marist brothers. I remember vividly one item on the agenda in particular: to put up a Nativity play to entertain the kids. It was at our lodging one night when the director of the play announced the roles, after discussing with the trip leader. And lo and behold, the director revealed, yours truly was to play Herod.
Now, I admit I’ve always been somewhat thin-skinned and sensitive, so my first instinct was hurt and shock at being asked to play the ‘villain’ of the Nativity story. But as I prepared for the role, and looking back on that time with the benefit of hindsight, I find myself having to accept an uncomfortable truth – that old Herod and I may have more than a little in common. As we draw nearer to Advent once again, I offer this short reflection in the hope that it may provide some insight into the common pitfalls that may occur as we prepare ourselves spiritually for the birth of Our Lord.
The first thing we can observe about Herod is that he is lazy. In the play, the first scene I appeared in was that of the Wise Men approaching Herod at his court. Knowing what I did about the Tetrarch of Galilee, I slouched down on the ‘throne’ (really just a plastic chair) set up for me, rested my cheek on my fist and put on the best brooding and apathetic look that I could, drawing inspiration from the rulers in the videogame Skyrim.
Look at how Herod behaves in the Gospel of Matthew. Upon learning about the new-born king from the Magi, we are told that he was ‘perturbed’ (Mt 2:3). Does Herod then try to find the answers himself? No. ‘He called together all the chief priests and the scribes of his people, and enquired of them where the Christ was to be born.’ (Mt 2:4). Having obtained the answer without any legwork on his part, he then tells the Wise Men ‘when you have found him, let me know’ (Mt 2:9). You may have begun to notice a pattern here.
Even when the Wise Men fail to return with the information he desires, Herod then… proceeds to delegate the butchery he intends to carry out to his soldiers. Imagine if he had decided to gear up and lead his soldiers to find this would-be usurper king himself. If he had then himself encountered the star, or even the Christ-child, would that have been an opportunity for Herod to come to conversion? Maybe or maybe not, and all things considered, I think maybe we should be glad he didn’t. But I’m pretty sure he wasn’t going to get anywhere just sitting on his throne.
What does this mean for us? I think this should serve as a reminder to us that Advent is the season where we need to work especially hard at increasing our awareness of God. We don’t really get the sense of this in tropical Singapore, but it’s no coincidence that we celebrate Christmas in winter. Singaporeans don’t tend to think negatively of winter because yay, snow! But think about having to endure it for an entire season. Nothing grows. Animals fall into hibernation. The gloomy weather can cause some people to develop Seasonal Affective Disorder, or the winter blues.
In short, the end of the year is when we let our lives catch up to us, with our wounds, scars and insecurities rearing their ugly heads. How we process these various events helps to set the tone for the year ahead. All the more, then, must we spend time in prayer and reflection, lest the ‘coldness’ of the season creep into our hearts and make us bitter. Through prayer we can learn the truth of these words:
“Anyone thinking of the Holy Child as born in December would mean by it exactly what we mean by it; that Christ is not merely a summer sun for the prosperous but a winter fire for the unfortunate.” – G.K. Chesterton
The next thing we can note about Herod is that he is vain. We need to dip into history here a little, and perhaps establishing some context might clear things up. The Herod that appears here in the Nativity story is not the same guy who later shows up at the trial of Jesus 33 years later. That’s his son, Herod Antipas. Nativity Herod eventually became known as Herod the Great, and he took great care to make sure history remembered him that way. Herod had founded a new dynasty after helping the Romans overthrow the previous king, who was the last of the Hasmonean dynasty whose story you can find in the Bible, in the Book of Maccabees (Catholic Bibles, at least). Wanting to establish his reign in glory, Herod the Great embarked on numerous building projects, including expanding the Temple in Jerusalem. The same one that Jesus would later compare himself to when he said, ‘Knock down this Temple and in three days I will raise it up.’ (Jn 2:19).
I think that these words of Christ help put our human accomplishments in perspective. How do we look at our achievements, or lack thereof, over the past year? Are we proud? Frustrated at not accomplishing more? And yet, what are all these compared with the glory of Jesus? Herod may have been powerful and adored during his lifetime, but do any of his accomplishments endear us to him today? No, and instead, he is reviled as a cruel and greedy man, someone who opposed of the Savior of the World.
Lastly, and related to vanity, we see that Herod is paranoid. When historians are asked about the Massacre of the Holy Innocents, one common answer is “Well, there’s no other report of it besides the Gospels, but it certainly wasn’t beneath Herod to give such an order.” In fact, the Jewish historian Josephus gives us another example of Herod’s cruel, paranoid actions, in Book I, Chapter 22 of his history, The Wars of the Jews :
“…he slew his wife’s grandfather, Hyrcanus, when he was returned out of Parthin to him, under this pretense, that he suspected him of plotting against him. […] Herod’s provocation was this,—not that Hyrcanus made any attempt to gain the kingdom, but that it was fitter for him to be their king than for Herod.”
Fear for his power as king was enough reason for Herod to execute a close relation without any evidence of the latter’s treachery.
While it is unlikely that anyone reading this would have the power to execute someone, all of us have to deal with insecurity and mistrust of others at some point. Like I said, my first thought after being asked to play Herod was that my friends must have seen some ‘Herodian’ qualities in me. Looking back on those times now, it strikes me that a good remedy for paranoia is to cultivate humility. After all, even if my friends did see me as Herod, it shouldn’t be a shock that I’m a sinner, right? What matters is that I accept that I am flawed, not as awesome as I’d like to be, perhaps, but with God’s grace I have the chance to overcome all that and become who I’m meant to be.
It’s been almost a year since I’ve played Herod, but by using him as a mirror in which my own flaws and insecurities were reflected, I’ve learned not to take this new Advent season for granted. It’s easy for me to assume that were I in the Nativity story, I’d be a Wise Man or a Shepherd, humble enough to be present at His birth. But it is perhaps closer to the truth that I might miss him entirely, blinded by my own sins. So pray for me, if you’re reading this, that Jesus will teach me attentiveness and humility to prepare for his coming. And know that I’ll be praying for you too 🙂
© 2017 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng