Happy Herodmas, My Pro-Choice Friends
I hope this note finds you well.
This is just to wish you and your family the very best on your special holiday, Herodmas. In my own church we also mark this day, though we call it the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Here’s hoping that by exploring our different beliefs, we can come to a greater mutual understanding. Though I fear that agreement is unlikely.
I know that for your religious tradition, Herodmas marks a momentous event. On this day, some 2017 years ago, King Herod of Judaea, appointed by the Romans to sit in David’s throne, made a fateful decision. It was in response to the news from foreign Magi of a dangerous unplanned pregnancy. One that menaced the peace, tranquility, and civic order of Judaea, Herod believed.
It also threatened his personal autonomy, his plans for the future, and even made him feel “unsafe,” as the Millennials like to say. King Herod did not make his choice lightly. Surely he agonized about it, consulted his friends and family, spiritual advisers and his physician. But in the end, it was a deeply personal decision.
While our feast of Christmas has been celebrated almost to death in song, story, and symbol, yours has not been treated so generously. Yes, there’s the occasional holiday greeting from Planned Parenthood, with holly and mistletoe. Now and then the Church of Satan will put up a billboard. But there really is no comparison, and I’m sorry about that for your sake. I imagine it makes you sad.
But take heart, _____! The laws of our nation, and most Western nations, favor your faith, not ours! The next great global superpower, China, honors your tradition to this very day. I’m sure that you took heart when Ireland, long linked to my Church, decided en masse to embrace the faith of Herod in this past year. May that bring you hope and comfort on this holiday.
Our very creed hinges on welcoming unexpected, unplanned and unsettling births.
In an effort at interfaith understanding, I found a fascinating play by W.H. Auden. It’s called For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. He wrote it shortly after transitioning from your faith to ours. But he knew your beliefs well enough to write some powerful speeches for Herod. Reading them helped me to understand your tradition, I hope. Let me quote from them here, in the hope that you’ll go on to read and enjoy the play. (It’s one of my favorites.)
Herod, in His Own Words
There is no visible disorder. No crime what could be more innocent than the birth of an artisan’s child? Today has been one of those perfect winter days, cold, brilliant, and utterly still, when the bark of a shepherd’s dog carries for miles, and the great wild mountains come up quite close to the city walls, and the mind feels intensely awake, and this evening as I stand at this window high up in the citadel there is nothing in the whole magnificent panorama of plain and mountains to indicate that the Empire is threatened by a danger more dreadful than any invasion of Tartars on racing camels or conspiracy of the Praetorian Guard….
Legislation is helpless against the wild prayer of longing that rises, day in, day out, from all these households under my protection:
“O God, put away justice and truth for we cannot understand them and do not want them. Eternity would bore us dreadfully. Leave Thy heavens and come down to our earth of waterclocks and hedges. Become our uncle. Look after Baby, amuse Grandfather, escort Madam to the Opera, help Willy with his home-work, introduce Muriel to a handsome naval officer. Be interesting and weak like us, and we will love you as we love ourselves.”
Reason is helpless, and now even the Poetic Compromise no longer works, all those lovely fairy tales in which Zeus, disguising himself as a swan or a bull or a shower of rain or what-have-you, lay with some beautiful woman and begot a hero. For the Public has grown too sophisticated. Under all the charming metaphors and symbols, it detects the stern command, “Be and act heroically”; behind the myth of divine origin, it senses the real human excellence that is a reproach to its own baseness.
So, with a bellow of rage, it kicks Poetry downstairs and sends for Prophecy. “Your sister has just insulted me. I asked for a God who should be as like me as possible. What use to me is a God whose divinity consists in doing difficult things that I cannot do or saying clever things that I cannot understand? The God I want and intend to get must be someone I can recognise immediately without having to wait and see what he says or does. There must be nothing in the least extraordinary about him. Produce him at once, please. I’m sick of waiting.”
Today, apparently, judging by the trio who came to see me this morning with an ecstatic grin on their scholarly faces, the job has been done. “God has been born,” they cried, “we have seen him ourselves. The World is saved. Nothing else matters.”
Naturally this cannot be allowed to happen. Civilisation must be saved even if this means sending for the military, as I suppose it does. How dreary. Why is it that in the end civilisation always has to call in these professional tidiers to whom it is all one whether it be Pythagoras or a homicidal lunatic that they are instructed to exterminate.
O dear. Why couldn’t this wretched infant be born somewhere else? Why can’t people be sensible? I don’t want to be horrid. Why can’t they see that the notion of a finite God is absurd? Because it is.
And suppose, just for the sake of argument, that it isn’t, that this story is true, that this child is in some inexplicable manner both God and Man, that he grows up, lives, and dies, without committing a single sin? Would that make life any better? On the contrary it would make it far, far worse.
For it could only mean this; that once having shown them how, God would expect every man, whatever his fortune, to lead a sinless life in the flesh and on earth. Then indeed would the human race be plunged into madness and despair. And for me personally at this moment it would mean that God had given me the power to destroy Himself. I refuse to be taken in. He could not play such a horrible practical joke. Why should He dislike me so?
I’ve worked like a slave. Ask anyone you like. I read all official dispatches without skipping. I’ve taken elocution lessons. I’ve hardly ever taken bribes. How dare He allow me to decide? I’ve tried to be good. I brush my teeth every night. I haven’t had sex for a month. I object. I’m a liberal. I want everyone to be happy. I wish I had never been born.
Powerful words, as I’m sure you’ll agree.
The Real Meaning of Herodmas
But they’re words with which people of our faith tradition cannot agree. In fact, our very creed hinges on welcoming unexpected, unplanned and unsettling births. From our perspective — no disrespect intended — that is how 99.9999999% of all human births throughout our race’s history have happened. You might say we consider that it’s in the “nature of the thing.” For us, rejecting such births would amount to declaring the whole history of our species a kind of tragedy, or crime against women.
We take a different view. It may sound strange to you, as it surely did to Herod, but we consider each such “random” or “accidental” birth actually … sacred. We see it as the image of the one Birth that so troubled the King.
I’m sure you understand now why my family couldn’t accept that kind invitation to your Herodmas festivities. Likewise, it’s why we did not extend an invite to all of you for our Christmas events. It really is best that we not appropriate each other’s cultures and traditions. Instead, let us celebrate our diversity, don’t you think?
All this, of course, is by way of explaining that Tweet I posted a few days back, to which you took offense.
If you’re pro-choice, you don’t get to do Christmas. Sorry.
But fear not! Your day is coming in just 72 hours. Enjoy the Feast of the Holy Innocents with your forefather, King Herod.
— John Zmirak (@JZmirak) December 26, 2018
I hope now you see that no offense was intended. It was merely an effort at clarity. I apologize if it came across as tactless.
May all the blessings of the Herodmas season descend upon you and remain with you and your family at this very special time of year.