Friday, December 19, 2014

Herod returns

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Massacre of the Innocents
from the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle

It's not Christmas yet. Not yet time to tell the story of the power-hungry King Herod who would not even stop at targeting infants in order to maintain his throne. But we have to tell the story, because Herod has returned--and for the second time in a decade (remember Beslan?)

It's an uncomfortable story. Even the masterpiece by Pieter Bruegel was altered from a scene of
carnage against babies to one of general pillage. See the woman in the middle, weeping disconsolately over...a sack? Almost all the dead children in the painting were substituted with market bundles, birds and dogs--and the coats of arms identifying the soldiers were likewise repainted. The very fact of Bruegel's work being profoundly altered proves the necessity of this gruesome Gospel story. Someone in power (enough power to convince an artist to rework an acknowledged masterpiece) did not want Herod's handiwork too clearly depicted. It might tie his own hands someday.

There is little danger (sad to say) of the Taliban hearing the story of King Herod and the babes of Bethlehem; little danger of any of us being able to convince a fanatic that some things really are unjustifiable. Perhaps the most we can do is see where in our own lives, a shadow of King Herod sits on his throne, giving us permission for a little pre-emptive meanness. If the grace of Christmas can exorcise the Herod in us, perhaps the renewal it brings could exorcise Herod from the world stage, too.

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