On January 6, we remember a tyrant who would stop at nothing to hold onto power. A man whose tenuous grip on control led him to lash out and hurt anyone who stood in his way. We remember him because January 6 is Epiphany, and we cannot tell the story of the magi without telling the story of Herod.

Herod, called Herod the Great, is not a popular character in the Christmas story. I’ve only once seen him portrayed in a children’s pageant. Most churches neatly skip over “The Holy Innocents, Martyrs” on December 28 every year. 

Historically speaking, Herod oversaw the building of several impressive religious and military structures, including the still-standing Temple Mount. He had several wives, one of whom he executed, and more than a dozen children, three of whom he executed. (As a side note, one of his sons, also named Herod, was the ruler when Jesus was an adult. This Herod died a few years after Jesus was born.) Though Herod was obsessed with making a name for himself and leaving a legacy, he is remembered not for his accomplishments but for his ruthlessness and cruelty in achieving those goals.

In the Bible, we meet Herod as the king of Jerusalem when the magi arrived after the birth of Jesus. Herod’s rule depended in part on his ability to please Caesar, who could remove Herod from the throne. When these outlandish astrologers showed up, asking about a newborn king, it was bad news for Herod. Kings showing up unexpectedly, heralded by heavenly portents, well, that was the last thing Herod wanted. Not only was it a threat to his own rule to have another king, but it was a threat to Caesar. 

Threatened with the loss of his power, control, and way of life, Herod responds deceptively and decisively. He learns from the foreign stargazers that the star appeared some time earlier, and he asks them to tell him where he, too, can find this new king. When they do not, and he realizes he’s been duped, Herod is enraged. Matthew 2:16-18 tells how Herod ordered the slaughter of the boys aged two and under, and the resulting inconsolable lamentation.

Now, in the face of terrible evil, one very tempting response is to look away. Like I said, I’ve never seen Herod and the slaughter of the innocents portrayed in a Christmas pageant. Occasionally, we do need to look away from evil for the sake of our own spirit’s wellbeing. Mostly, though, we ignore evil because that’s easier than doing something about it. 

Another very tempting response is to point fingers. This historic, wicked king Herod sounds an awful lot like [insert your favorite love-to-hate leader]. To be clear, it is appropriate and necessary to discern whether or not our leaders are acting in ways that are godly. What’s problematic is when we use judgment of our opponents as a way to absolve ourselves of any responsibility, or when we substitute comparison with someone else’s sin for confession of our own.

Be honest. When your life seems out of control, when you feel threatened, when you realize you are losing power, how do you react? Do you gracefully adapt, flawlessly pivot, peacefully release what you’ve lost, and trust God above all else? Yeah, me neither. Do you snatch desperately at anything that you can control, lash out at people who inconvenience or disagree with you, and (literally or figuratively) stomp your feet in frustration? Wellllllll…

Rather than give into the temptation to look away or point fingers, Epiphany calls us to faithfully follow wherever God leads, even if it leads us to strange places and stranger travelling companions. Epiphany dares us to release our deathgrip on control so we can hold onto God instead.

This Epiphany, let the story of the Magi and Herod and the Holy Innocents remind not to turn your eyes from evil, either your own or in the world around you. Let it also remind you that from the very beginning, Jesus has taken away our control, our power, and our way of life. In return, he gives forgiveness, reconciliation, and everlasting life.