One of my more memorable experiences in St. Petersburg, Russia, was to visit St. Isaac’s Cathedral. I’ve never seen a more magnificent interior of a church. However, what struck me also was a sculpture on the exterior depicting Herod’s slaughter of the children in Bethlehem. The sculpture seemed almost a betrayal of the beauty on the inside.

The Orthodox Church calendar assigns December 29 as a day to remember the slaying of the innocents. Described in Matthew 2, the incident occurs after Wise Men from the east go home but intentionally fail to reveal the whereabouts of the new king.

The Stable and the Star

You may remember that Wise Men came from the east after they saw his star. Their first stop on the journey was to Herod’s court. Herod consulted the teachers of the law about the location of the birth of the Messiah, and they informed him that it was to be in Bethlehem as written in the prophet Micah.

Our Christmas narrative usually puts the wise men in the story with the shepherds, and we envision them kneeling before the baby Jesus in the stable. However, Matthew’s account leads us to believe that Jesus was older when these men visited him. Consistent with our usual understanding, however, Mathew relates that a star guided them to the place and that they worshipped him upon arrival. The western church calendar memorializes their visit on January 6 despite the Christmas pictures showing them at the stable.

Established World Powers

The birth of a new king did not set well with the established powers. History tells us that Herod was exceedingly jealous of anyone, including his own sons. That he was alarmed at the thought of a new king who might replace him is an understatement of the first magnitude.

To the wise men he feigns interest in worshipping the new king and asks for their help in locating him. Were it not for a warning dream telling the wise men to avoid Herod, they might have inadvertently assisted him in destroying Jesus. Herod, however, was not to be deterred by their subterfuge. He sent soldiers to slaughter all children in Bethlehem under the age of two.

The thrill of Christmas can feel deflated when we read of this heinous slaughter of innocent life. We are reminded quickly after celebrating Christ’s birth that the festivities are marred by resistance and that not everyone welcomed the new king. Yet the reality of evil is the very reason for God coming among us.

The descendants of Herod are the totalitarian ruling systems of our day. Under different names and with different ideologies, they are all the same: they maintain the same impulse to resist any rule but their own and to impose their desires by force, lies, and intimidation. Any other ruling system is both suspect and an object to be eliminated; they hold contempt for Christianity in particular.

The Triumphant Ruler

Psalm 2 sets a more somber tone and asks, “Why do the nations rage . . . and the rulers conspire together against the Lord and his Anointed One?” The psalmist then reminds us that they won’t succeed and that God’s anointed will “break them with an iron scepter.” Furthermore in 1 Corinthians 15:25 we read that “He must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.” The Anointed One will not be trifled with.

Although a king that rules with an iron scepter paints a far different picture than the “Jesus meek and mild” that we read about in Matthew, this strong, more authoritative side of Jesus reminds us that he is indeed a King. To us and to all who will come to him, he is merciful, but every living soul will bow the knee before him (Philippians 2:10). He will triumph, and we can take comfort that he will thoroughly defeat his enemies no matter how hard they resist. Stand with him. Christmas isn’t over.