Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The first Showdown between Church & State: Herod and Christ

“Christ came not to bring peace but a sword and that the Kingdom of God comes not by the elimination of conflict but through an increasing opposition and tension between the church and the world. The conflict between the two cities is as old as humanity and must endure until the end of time.

And though the church may meet with ages of prosperity, and her enemies may fail and the powers of the world may submit to her sway, these things are no criterion of success. She wins not by majorities but by martyrs and the cross is her victory.

She has been the guest and the exile, the mistress and the martyr, of nations and civilizations and has survived them all. Viewing history from this standpoint the Christian will not be confident in success or despondent in failure.”

Christopher Dawson, The Kingdom of God and History 1938

Introducing lukewarmness:

God’s hates lukewarmness because it leads to the paralysis of the will and apathy of the heart. No ideology or state of mind communicates this moral and spiritual malaise better in modern times than secular-liberalism. Under this worldview there are no extremes of goodness and evil. In other words, great Saints and heroes as well as evil men who are bent on destroying others are discredited. That's right! Goodness and evil, winning and losing, sin and virtue, salvation and damnation, are truths that are muddled in the middle.

The people of God in the New Testament were certainly not exempt from this kind of mediocre middle. The Risen Christ issued the following warning to the church in Laodicea about its dangers: “I know your works; I know that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, 'I am rich and affluent and have no need of anything,' and yet do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” (Revelation 3:15-17)

So few know that human beings can rise above themselves in heroic sanctity and become like angels. On the other hand, we can be equally ignorant about the human ability to descend into an animal-like existence. Yes, people can become something beneath their human dignity. But those who are morally and spiritually lukewarm deny the heights of holiness and the depths of evil. Indeed, they are blinded to the existence of Saints and sinners. But even more harmful is their denial of heaven and hell. Yet, if we are to take Scripture seriously, these two worlds are mightily engaged in a contest over each and every soul. As such, resting contently in the middle can last only so long. Sooner or later we will be forced to choose between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of darkness.

The spiritual slumber of Judaism:

In the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel we are introduced to the two kings who happen to represent the two worlds of heaven and hell: Christ, the newborn King and King Herod. In the middle, if you will, stands the Three Kings from the Orient, the Magi. They represent all the political rulers of future ages who would have the choice to either pattern their governance in the likeness of the tyrant, King Herod or in the likeness of the servant-leader, Christ the King.

Fr. Cornelius Lapide, a sixteenth century priest, said that during the centuries just before the birth of Christ, Judaism had fallen into a spiritual slumber. As such, the Jewish nation was vulnerable to powerful foreign enemies such as the Roman Empire. According to an ancient Catholic historian Eusebius (260-341 A.D.), in the year 63 B.C., for the first time since the time of Moses, “the succession of Jewish rulers and governors came to an end” under the Roman ruler of Pompey. Their political independence would not be restored until 1948 A.D.

Israel knew firsthand that slavery to sin translated into political slavery. Catholics too would have to learn this painful lesson from time to time throughout Church history. Indeed, the Church is the hope and despair of mankind. When she is spiritually strong, society is lifted up. When her members fall into worldiness and lukewarmness, a moral and spiritual malaise spreads throughout the land. As one political commentator said, what happens to the Catholic Church happens to America. Perhaps the twenty-first century Catholic Church can bequeath her wealth of historic and spiritual lessons from her own past so that America can be spared of this painful lesson.

Enter King Herod:

St. Gregory once said, “When the King of heaven was born, the earthly king was troubled because, indeed, terrestrial exaltation is confounded when celestial greatness is disclosed.” As indicated, King Herod, at the time of Christ’s birth, was a puppet ruler over the Jews for the Roman emperors. He happened to be half Jewish and half Idumean. Needless to say, King Herod was despised by the Jews but he did do a few things to their liking. For example, he expanded the Jewish Temple, the construction of which lasted 46 years. But the problem was that he also saw himself as the legitimate king of the Jews. He loved his power. And to be sure, the coming Messiah was considered by him to be a threat. When the Magi showed up at his doorstep inquiring about the whereabouts of the Messiah, King Herod was disturbed to say the least.

King Herod was a good politician. He had religion on his lips but his heart was far from honoring God. He pretended as though he wanted to pay homage to the newborn Messiah. However, what he said and what he did were two entirely different things. Every power hungry ruler must speak about peace if he wants to lord over his subjects. Sound familiar? When King Herod found out that the Magi did not return to Jerusalem in order to give a report as to the location of the Messiah’s birthplace, he launched a campaign to exterminate the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem, that is, the newborn children who served as the first martyrs of the Catholic Church.

Political power is seductive. It appeals to so many human vices which lurk within the human soul: pride, vanity, lust, just to name a few. But when political rulers throw off the laws of God and say to themselves, “Mine!” then there is no limit to their power. There is no human right or legal precedent that will stand in the way of implementing their political agenda. This is how dictators operate. “Herod’s inordinate ambition for retaining and augmenting the kingdom of Judæa drove him to this horrible infanticide…And he himself was ambitious of the title, and told the Jews that he was their promised Messiah.” Not even King Herod’s fatherly love for his sons tempered his lust for power. After all, he “slew his own sons, who would have succeeded him in his kingdom.” If its any consolation, oppressive political regimes and rulers rarely last very long. As far as Herod's dynasty is concerned, like the modern day Soviet Union and Third Reich, it didn't even last a hundred years.

Just as nations in moral decline dispense with pre-born children through abortion, political tyrants historically have dealt with their enemy by killing their babies through forced infanticide. Such was the case with the Egyptian Pharaoh, Ramesses II, who ordered the killing of Hebrew infants during the time of Moses. Such was the case with King Herod when the birth of Christ threatened his reign.

Not much has changed, has it? Today’s political leaders are a bit more subtle and refined when it comes to the murder of pre-born children. But if the advancement of their political agenda requires it, then they will certainly favor its practice; of course, on the condition that such inhumane acts are conducted behind closed doors. Keep in mind that during the first century, infanticide was not only engineered by tyrants but it was a socially acceptable practice among the people. Keep in mind that citizens quite often trigger the growth of sin and vice, but their rulers perfect its practice.

Stay tuned for The first Showdown between Church & State: Herod and Christ II


Historical notes:

1. Israel was first governed by Judges, then Kings, and then during the four centuries preceding coming of the Messiah, the Sanhedrin (a council of Sadducees, Pharisees, priests and scribes) was the last to rule. Although the Sanhedrin was still in existence when Christ began his public ministry, it no longer ruled independently. This is why they had to consult with Pilate and Herod- both of whom were appointed by the Roman emperor -in order to put Christ to death.

2. Idumeans were descendants of Esau, brother of Jacob. As such, both Jews and Idumeans were descendants of Abraham. Remember when God said to Moses, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?” Abraham was the God-father, so to speak; Isaac, the son; and Jacob, the grandson whose twelve sons founded the twelve tribes of Israel. They are called the Patriarchs in the Old Testament.

3. As mentioned above, despotic rule generally does not very long. It either implodes from within or is destroyed from without. Herod's dynasty was put to an end when Titus, and his Roman army leveled Jerusalem to the ground. With that said, the papacy is going on 2,000 years old. This is miraculous given the duration of political regimes and other institutions. As Pope St. Pius X reminded Catholics, "Kingdoms and empires have passed away; peoples once renowned for their history and civilization have disappeared; time and again the nations, as though overwhelmed by the weight of years, have fallen asunder; while the Church, indefectible in her essence, united by ties indissoluble with her heavenly Spouse, is here to-day radiant with eternal youth, strong with the same primitive vigor with which she came from the Heart of Christ dead upon the Cross."

4. In Hebrew, Bethlehem means "house of bread," and Ephrathah means "fruit bearing."