Advent: The Clergy
When [Herod] had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. (Matthew 2:4)
We are looking at the experiences of various people during the events of the first Christmas and this is the one that troubles me the most: it involves the ‘seriously religious’ people. These people do not come out well in the Christmas story.
These are the good guys; they are the keepers of the law, the teachers. These are God’s people up against an evil king. And sadly they don’t even put up a fight.
There is a prayer of confession in the Book of Common Prayer, which says, ‘We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us.’ It acknowledges that there are both sins of omission – failing to do what is right – and sins of commission – doing what is wrong. Both are present here.
The sin that the religious authorities commit is to tell Herod where the Messiah is to be born. They must have known that when faced with a threat, Herod shifted into ‘psycho’ mode and the blood flowed. Yet in Luke’s description of their meeting we see no hint of the religious authorities having any desire to protect their potential Messiah: no hiding of the key text.
Instead, they simply respond to the king’s request with a submissive, ‘It’s Bethlehem in Judea, your Majesty.’ To make matters worse they then quote Micah 5:2 with its statement that the child born there will not simply be Messiah, but ruler over Israel. Anything more inclined to trigger an outbreak of pre-emptive murderous rage is hard to imagine.
The good that the religious authorities omit is to find the Messiah and worship him themselves. There is no mention in the Gospels that the religious world bothered to take the five-mile trip south to Bethlehem.
It isn’t very impressive, is it? Given that so many of us approaching this Christmas season fit firmly in the category of ‘religious people’ we really need to ask what went wrong here. I suggest it comes down to fear.
The religious authorities probably supplied the right answer to Herod because they feared for their lives. Yet this sort of cowardice is actually idolatry and in the Old Testament it is condemned. We live in a culture where it has become ‘popular’ to be anti-Christian, so it’s very tempting to keep quiet about Christ at Christmas.
Let’s not be afraid of fear. Let us stand up for our faith.
J.John (Revd Canon) lives in Chorleywood, Hertfordshire in England. He is married to Killy and they have three sons and one daughter-in-law.