It commemorates the terrible slaughter of little boys under two years of age by King Herod. Herod was trying to kill the newborn King of the Jews, the Messiah, because he mistakenly thought that this baby king would one day try to overtake his throne.
Herod was a puppet king, put in place by the Romans to hold things together in what was a little corner of their empire. But even though Israel was small, it held an important place along the trade routes linking Egypt and Rome. Egypt at that time was the breadbasket of the world.
So, uprisings and troubles in this area could not be ignored. They had to be put down.
Much of the history of the New Testament, including the eventual crucifixion of Our Lord, turns on this fact.
Herod was a placeholder. His purpose in the Roman scheme of things was to keep the order in that tiny kingdom of his. He was charged with keeping things calm, collecting taxes and making sure that the trade routes stayed open. If he needed to kill people to accomplish this, he was free to do so.
Herod sat on a wobbly throne. He was subject to the Romans above and threatened by the religious zealots and restless populace below. Since he had Jewish inclinations of his own, he understood the power of the prophesied Messiah on the popular imagination. People were waiting for a warrior king who would free Israel and restore it to glory. Tales of the Maccabean revolts still resonated. It all seemed possible to a puppet king.
When three men from the East dropped by, asking directions to the new born king, that gave what was probably Herod’s always-ready paranoia a new target. Somewhere out there in the little town of Bethlehem his future nemesis was growing up.
After the men who were searching for the baby failed to return to Herod and tell him where this child was, Herod moved to a simpler, more expedient method of eliminating the risk. He ordered the murder of every baby boy under the age of two.
Jesus was wholly human as well as wholly God. Like us, he was born to die. But not then. His time was years in the future. So, God sent an angel to Jesus’ step-father in a dream to tell him to take Mary and the baby Jesus away from there.
I’ve always found it significant that the angel did not come to Mary. Joseph was the protector of that little family. The angel came to him.
And, like good fathers everywhere, he accepted the responsibility of taking care of his family.
Joseph took his wife and baby into exile in Egypt where they stayed for what sounds like a few years. The little boy Jesus and His mother and father learned what it means to be strangers in a strange land. They were refugees, illegal immigrants, alone in a land that did not share their heritage or their faith.
This is a sad tale, a hard beginning to the life that would change the world forever. Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus were a family facing hardship, hard times, and a struggle for survival just like families have always faced these things: Together.
“My peace I give you,” Jesus would later say. “Peace of Christ,” we say to one another. “The peace that passes all understanding,” Paul described it to us.
But like everything thing else about this story, this peace comes wrapped in a crown of thorns.