In the retelling of the story of Christmas, a detail is often left out.
Mary and Joseph lived under a government led by a tyrannical king, a leader who felt easily threatened and would do nearly anything to preserve his power. King Herod, as all royalty believed, was chosen by God to have dominion over his land and the people who lived there. He ruled with a heavy hand and on the backs of laborers, built opulent palaces that shimmered with gold. He took great comfort in the heavy, intricately carved metal of his throne.
Imagine Herod’s surprise when scholars from the East arrived to visit him, bursting with news of an astronomical anomaly—a new star in the eastern sky. And under that star, the prophesy promised, a spiritual king would be born. “Where is he?” the great men asked. “We’ve traveled far, in the coldest days of winter, to bow before him.”
King Herod knew nothing of the star; he hardly paid attention to the sky. He bristled at the thought of the scholars and his own people bowing before a baby. He summoned his advisors, who identified the birthplace as Bethlehem. Sending the wise men out again on their journey, the king asked that they bring back the exact location of the child.
The king’s court buzzed loudly with the news the next day, but he could hear no more. “I am the chosen one!” he yelled to anyone who would listen, pointing to large maps of his kingdom to calm himself. The palace shook with his rage. Finally, to preserve his position as the only monarch of the land, King Herod ordered his soldiers to the town of Bethlehem to slaughter every child under the age of two.
He unleashed unspeakable violence so close to Jesus’ birth.
But the wise men arrived while the palace slept, led by the quiet light of the star. They found the small family wrapped in blankets, nestled together for warmth by a fire. Imagine Mary and Joseph’s expressions in hearing of the men’s journey by starlight. Imagine the relief they might have felt by their arrival—a confirmation of their highest hopes. The wise men knelt before them, offering gifts that they would need in the days ahead.
At Christmas, the story of Jesus’ birth often ends with the peaceful image of a manger under starlight. We are not listening for the hooves of Herod’s soldiers, on a mission to destroy the most vulnerable.
Mary, Joseph, and the wise men however were listening when their dreams once again spoke to them. Surely tired, hungry, and ill-prepared for another journey, the family fled to Egypt and the wise men returned home on a different route to the East.
As I read this story today, I’m struck by hope’s narrow escape. Christ was not born in peaceful times. He was born in the midst of hardship to human parents who relied on the kindness of strangers, the strength of their own hands, and the power of prayers. He required protection. How can we protect hope during our own times of difficulty? Because like the story, our hope will be called eventually out of exile, to stand up for the vulnerable and to preserve what we hold dear.