Magazine article U.S. Catholic

The Baby Is a Thief: Baby Jesus May Be Cute, but He Has Come to Shake Up Our World Order

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

The Baby Is a Thief: Baby Jesus May Be Cute, but He Has Come to Shake Up Our World Order

Article excerpt

Advent is a wonderful season because it's all about waiting for a baby. Who doesn't love babies? Religion is sweet when it concerns a tiny bundle of life we can hold in our arms and upon whom the very hope of the world depends. More people would sign up for church membership if it were all as lovely and cuddly and charming as this.

But be forewarned: The baby is a thief.

King Herod is the first to suspect this. Sages from the East have seen a star predicting a royal birth and a new kingdom coming. The king of the Jews finds this scenario alarming. A transfer of power is not what Herod has in mind. He likes being king very much. He's a man who finds pleasure in power and reads a threat in every face around him. And with good reason: Only half Jewish and personally indifferent toward religion, Herod is universally despised by the people over whom he exerts control. Violence is second nature to a man as ambitious and ruthless as this.

Herod has murdered before. Family, even loved ones, are not spared when the king's paranoia is aroused. This is how the house of Herod is emptied of rivals, real or imagined: First his wife Mariamne's brother, next Herod's own brother, then his wife's grandfather, then Mariamne herself. Herod proceeds in executing his sister Salome's two husbands in succession--not without Salome's cold approval, it should be said. Finally, Herod has three of his own sons, who would be his heirs, eliminated. A man who would not hesitate to execute the wife he loved and his own flesh and blood will not trouble himself about other people's babies.

Especially if the baby is a thief destined to steal his thunder and his throne.

Fifth-century church father Quodvultdeus, a student of Augustine, writes vividly of King Herod's dilemma: "Why are you afraid, Herod, when you hear of the birth of a king? He does not come to drive you out, but to conquer the devil." Quod vult deus is Latin for "what God wills." If Herod had cared at all for what God wills, he might have thought twice before choosing to slaughter all male children around Bethlehem under the age of 2. Killing is uncomplicated when the only lord you serve is self-interest.

Quodvultdeus accuses Herod: "You destroy those who are tiny in body because fear is destroying your heart." When a heart becomes as shriveled and unresponsive as Herod's, no appeal to compassion is likely. Fear is the archenemy of the heart. It makes us unfit for love, incapable of sympathy. The fear within us is a greater devil than anything we may point to outside of ourselves and call evil. The exterior enemy may, at best, do harm to our bodies. But the devil of our own fear can deform our souls and turn us into murderers.

Herod the Great fears an infant resting in his mother's arms. The king's reign has already been long and will end before this child reaches maturity (quite a bit sooner, in fact): what possible harm can this baby do to him? "Yet your throne is threatened by the source of grace--so small, yet so great," Quodvultdeus chides. A chasm yawns between the ruler who defines himself as great, and the child for whom worldly greatness is a thing to be tossed away lightly, like a toy rattle that makes noise of no consequence.

Does this infant come to steal Herod's authority? What use would he have of such a bauble? Ironically, "The King of the Jews" is a title that will be nailed to the cross of Jesus in his final hours. A title he never lived for, and clearly he would not deem worth dying for. Yet to Herod, it's worth killing for, over and over, as he amasses corpses to preserve a swiftly passing kingdom of sand that will trickle from his fingers before he can close his fist on a grain of it. …

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