Christmas as a tale of hope, cheer, and love is only half the story. The other half, if we were to read the gospels with open eyes, roars like a box-office political thriller worthy of Guillermo del Toro or Erik Matti.
Years before the baby’s birth, the murder of Julius Caesar plunged ancient Rome into political upheaval. To stop the uprising, the adopted heir, Octavian, to be later crowned Caesar Augustus, led a campaign to quash a short-lived civil war.
After winning, Augustus proclaimed himself the “savior” of Rome. Justice and salvation became his regime’s policy. To be fair, Augustus did turn the tide of conflict around and peace reigned throughout the realm. This was called Pax Romana. He was such a celebrity that whenever his deeds were proclaimed, they spoke of it as Evangelion in Greek or "good news" in English, from which the word "gospel" was derived.
This empire, where Augustus sat not only as an absolute dictator but as “son of a god,” stretched all the way to the eastern Mediterranean. However, the peace he secured for Rome hardly extended this far into the colonized regions.
In this slice of the protectorates, Herod the Great, a ruthless monarch, ruled as the King of Judea with a mailed fist. Rome handed him the title “King of the Jews” with near-autonomous power. Only the authority of the Roman emperor stood between him and the Hebrew nation.
Having consolidated his position by being allied with the imperials, Herod later solidified his supremacy by butchering close to 50 priests who sided with the opposition.
Highly suspicious even of his friends and family, any threat to Herod’s power faced certain death. Antiquities historians tell us that he had his wife Mariamme, his mother-in-law, his wife’s grandfather, and his three sons—Alexander, Aristobulus, and Antipater II—executed due to his paranoia.
Herod masked his bloodlust by building altars and theaters to bolster his legitimacy. He was responsible for rebuilding the Jewish Temple so he could reap the loyalty of Jewish religious assemblies.
Now, place yourself in the shoes of this humble Hebrew couple who lived during the time: Joseph the carpenter whose wife, Mary, later became pregnant. One huge problem: Joseph wasn’t the father of the child. Mary, a devout Jew, had no idea how the pregnancy happened, save for one unbelievable account: An angel had appeared to her saying that she would give birth to the King foretold by the Hebrew prophets.
The news of the pregnancy didn’t bode well for the couple. In fact, the risks were real for one so faithful to Jewish tradition as Joseph and Mary. Judea was a “pious” community where adultery merited death by stoning (Leviticus 20:10). There was no holding back the punishment if the news ever reached the ears of religious leaders—the Sanhedrin.
Likewise, if word got around that Mary carried in her womb the one who would inherit the throne of King David, Herod the Great would not take it sitting down. He would think of it not only as defiance, but an outright denial of his power and legitimacy.
Thus, prior to being born, the child Jesus, as the foretold Messiah, was charged as Public Enemy No. 1.
Having heard of the birth of the Child King, Herod immediately ordered a preemptive strike: the slaughter of children ages two and below.
There was no silent night as the cries of mothers who saw their children butchered filled the cold evening air. No chestnuts roasting on an open fire, no Frosty the Snowman, none of the Noche Buena, Santa Claus, and Christmas carols that make the season today a fairly happy one.
The story of the fugitive family, whether you choose to believe in it or not, needs to be told complete with its political underpinnings. The reason being that the paranoia behind Herod’s ruthlessness exists to this very day.
While we busy ourselves with a cheerful, more polite version of Christmas, let’s not forget the alleged child-outlaw born under the glow of a brilliant star and later grew up to speak truth to power.
“For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us […] His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).
Isang mapagpalayang Pasko sa inyong lahat.