THE sky darkens – again.
Can God be so displeased with the works of Herod the Great? Has he not rebuilt the Temple? Does its splendour not put even Solomon’s work to shame?
And has he not brought peace to Judea? Why should peace count for so little? Judea is small in the eyes of Rome, but Rome looms large in the eyes of Judea’s king. What the Roman Senate can make, the Roman Senate can break.
These stiff-necked Jews! Why can they not accept that their fate is to be ruled by others? Would it hurt them so much to acknowledge Caesar’s divinity? What harm could it do?
A stiff-necked people – and a stiff-necked God. So jealous – so easily offended.
He who, for the second time, darkens the face of the Moon.
It all began with those three Parthian wizards. Yes, it was they who began it. As if I didn’t have enough trouble on my hands, they came before the throne – my throne, mark you – seeking to know where they might find the Christ: "For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him."
The Christ! The "anointed one"!
They had the temerity to ask me – Herod the Great, King of the Jews by order of the Senate and People of Rome – where they should seek for the "King of the Jews".
It crossed my mind to have them executed on the spot. But the Parthians rule a mighty empire, and are not to be offended needlessly. So I hid my anger, and put on the countenance of a devout and benevolent ruler – bidding the Temple priests and guardians of the Law to give the Magi answer.
"In Bethlehem of Judea," they replied, "for so it is written by the prophet: ‘And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.’"
Rule my people? What unutterable folly! As if Rome would permit anyone it had not chosen to rule over its own client kingdom. I pity the man unfortunate enough to be proclaimed King by these credulous fools. The Romans would have him nailed to a cross before you could say "Hosanna!"
But, once again, I hid my wrath and drew the Parthians aside. "Follow your star to Bethlehem," I said, "search diligently for the young child: and when you have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also."
They assured me they would do so. Fool! For wizards they were, and they read my thoughts as easily as if they were written on parchment. They knew that the real King of the Jews would never suffer such a prodigy to live.
Some rough peasant’s child, born under a wayward star? That’s just the sort of event that encourages the most dangerous political dreamers, and sends every village rabbi scurrying for scriptural confirmation that, at last, the Messiah has come among his people.
So I did what I had to do – what any ruler worthy of the name would have done. When the Parthians failed to return, and the first mad rumours of stables and angels reached my ears, I sent my men-at-arms to Bethlehem … and they did what had to be done.
It was less than three-dozen little boys. The Captain of the Guard put the tally at thirty-three. Not such a crime – not really. Not when you consider how many little boys would have ended up being run through by Roman swords if this "holy child" had been allowed to reach manhood.
Thirty-three little boys to save thirty-three thousand. Such is the calculus of kingship.
If you would rule men, then you must first learn to kill children.
And live with nightmares.
Oh yes, I see them in my dreams. Hear their screams. See the faces of their stricken mothers.
All save one. She recedes from me, south into the desert. Beneath a blazing star, she lifts up her living son – and his face is shining.
Historical Note: In 4BC – the year traditionally associated with the birth of Jesus Christ – Herod the Great of Judea mysteriously fell victim to the excruciating medical condition known as Fournier’s gangrene. He died in a matter of hours.
This short story was first published in The Dominion Post of 21st December 2007.
May I wish all the visitors to Bowalley Road a very Merry Christmas.