I feel sorry for Herod, the Jew who sold his soul to the Romans. He is alienated from everyone by his power-mongering, his riches, and his bloodlust. The weight of his rulership is crushing, yet he’d die – and kill – before he lets go of it. It’s all he has – the ability to order others around and punish them if they don’t jump to it. Now some upstart king is coming to challenge him over the little power-niche he’s managed to carve for himself in this half-forgotten corner the Roman Empire. Poor Herod. Can’t someone tell him that the one he fears is the only being capable of relieving him of his twin burdens of greed and hate? That his precious domain is already the territory of a far greater God than Caesar?
So what’s with Herod? It’s because each year as Christmas approaches, I long to view the greatest of all stories through a lens that will remind me how truly amazing it is. Something in me wants a fresh take.
Some of the greatest music has been written for the weeks of Advent, choral and symphonic compositions that have endured through the centuries, to help us contemplate Christmas. More than "endured", parts have been commercialized so completely that the most agnostic shopper will recognize strains of Handel’s Hallelujah chorus pouring over the balconies of large shopping plazas, or suddenly materializing in flash mob performances at train stations and city centers. Christmas music from sacred to folk has become a commodity. I’m not giving up on the Hallelujah chorus, and I’ll sing it whole-heartedly every chance I get. And maybe some stray shopper might catch the line, “The kingdom of this world IS BECOME the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.” If those words reach home, they’re enough to make anyone drop his gift card and look for some way to forward that kingdom.
Back to Herod. Less well-known than Handel’s, but no less majestic, is an oratorio by the French composer Hector Berlioz: The Childhood of Christ. Not only is the music a couple of hundred years beyond baroque, the story is a departure from what we accept as “the Christmas story”, with its kings and shepherds, adoration and sweet hay. I think there is a message in it for us, particularly this year.
The oratorio opens in Herod’s court; two soldiers on the wall, patrolling the castle, are discussing the rumors flying around town. Then we hear Herod’s inner despair as he is tormented by the dream foretelling the end of his glory. The only stirrings of sympathy one could ever feel for Herod can be found here, as he groans over the heavy lot of ruling Judea, ‘envies the shepherd boy his lot’ and longs for an hour’s rest.
My favorite part isn’t based on the Bible. Berlioz creates a story that could well have happened during the holy family’s flight into Egypt. And the poignancy of this fictional episode is keen, as we again see Israel and Palestine facing off in an all-too-familiar pattern.
Here it is: A panic-stricken Joseph rouses Mary and the child, and takes them into the desert to escape Herod’s double-edged wrath. In the desert, they stop and rest at an oasis, and eventually their weary feet bring them into the lands outside of Judea, by which time they are exhausted, starving, the donkey long dead, and Mary unable to nurse the child any longer. Stopping at house after house in the town of Sais, they are turned away (again) as ‘dirty Hebrews’. And here is where we get to imagine something so amazing, so non-traditional, it makes you wonder what would have happened “if”.
One last home remains, the compound of an Ishmaelite family, also sons of Abraham, and the forefathers of today’s Arab nations. Summoning his last ounce of strength, Joseph hauls himself to the tent: “Open the door, Oh, let us in. Pity us, weary and famished. Open your door to a mother and babe.”
The father of the family takes one look at the refugees, and, seeing neither Hebrew nor Ishmaelite, (think Israeli or Palestinian) bids them enter. Recognizing their dire suffering, he orders his family to care for the travelers, bringing salve for their feet, drink, fine fruit, and a cradle. Only when their needs are met does he introduce himself, and assure Joseph that he and his family are indeed brothers, Ishmael’s race born in Syria, of Abraham’s line. When they discover they are both carpenters, Joseph is invited to remain in his compound, where the child Jesus will learn the trade alongside his own sons, ‘and be a wise, obedient son.’
Well, it’s a beautiful story, though Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary returned to Judea. We also know the angels said “Peace on Earth”, and this peace seems a long time coming. But every year I listen to this oratorio, and think about the world’s Redeemer sheltered in an Ishmaelite compound, and it all seems quite possible.
You may not find Berlioz on Amazon. If you do, it will probably be in French. I don’t prescribe it as a cure-all for holiday inertia. I do, however, know that it helps me look through a different window of the stable. It makes the story real, contemporary and eternal. And there are many such windows, perhaps a different one for each of us. If we ignore them in favor of the front entrance, we may only see a softly lit, tinselly nativity scene. If we dare to look through them, we will see the King of the World, come again, to us.