The Bishop and the Butterfly: Murder, Politics, and the End of the Jazz Age
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    Advent in Herod’s Kingdom

    Long before Christmas season was a consumer extravaganza starting just after Halloween, it was a period of solemn religious reflection starting four Sundays before Christmas. For some of us, it still is. In America that means it's both. I experience, and enjoy, the secular Christmas of eggnog, gift wrap, and Dean Martin, but I'm also mindful, maybe a bit more each winter, of Advent and its quieter demands. We're in the bleak midwinter, of the season and sometimes of the spirit. And midwinter's never seemed bleaker than when I watch the news.

    Advent was originally a period of fasting, a shorter chillier Lent before the twelve days of Christmas feasting. Part of me still prefers that model to the current model of feasting until the 25th and then collapsing into post-holiday blues. I don’t diet in December, although maybe I should, but it’s worth a little sobriety and reflection. We are in the desert of short days.

    Jesus of Nazareth was not really born in winter. But he came in the midst of a spiritual winter. He came into a dispirited world. And, as our parish priest recently reminded me, Jesus was born into a political winter: into an occupied country, whose local puppet rulers had grown corrupt and whose imperial masters had let their own republic die. It was a season for cynicism, a solstice of despair. And the faint gleam of hope that Jesus brought was a long way off. As I’ve blogged before, Christmas is Christianity’s second holiday. Easter celebrates the fulfillment of hope. Christmas only gives a far-off sign, a cold shimmer on a winter night, to keep hope alive. The promise will be kept, but not yet. Not for years yet. You need to hold onto your faith for decades more.

    Jesus was born poor and naked in Herod’s kingdom. And Herod was no good king. The gospel of Matthew says that Herod sent soldiers to kill the infant Jesus, and to massacre hundreds of children hoping to get the one they’d been sent for. That story isn’t historical, but it is a lesson about power and fear and how monarchs lead.

    Medieval and Renaissance England loved to stage King Herod. He was one of the great roles of English theater. He ranted. Long, insane rants about how great and powerful he was, how he was the greatest of the great. An incarnation of the Sin of Pride, made ridiculous by that sin. Hamlet is still using Herod as the example of over-the-top acting: to “out-Herod Herod” is to out-ham the hams.

    So Shakespeare’s vision of the Christmas holidays involved a ranting, egomaniacal king, an absurd boaster who was actually a foreign puppet. But that vainglorious buffoon sends armed men to tear children from their mother’s arms. There’s such a thing as getting too close to the original meaning of Christmas. 

    It’s Advent, and we live in Herod’s kingdom. Children are taken from their mothers, and the king is angry with the wise men. Virtue and kindness are out of favor. Despair comes easy. But Advent’s promise is hope in the distance: a star on the horizon, an obscure birth in a village far from fame or power. Tomorrow may not be better. Tomorrow may be even darker than today. But a better day is coming, in its own time, and when it comes no earthly power will be able to delay it. 

    What to do in the cold dark days between the promise and the fulfillment? Stay faithful. Make ourselves ready. Remember that Herod will not last forever. And hold tight to the advice the angel gives the shepherds: “Be not afraid.”

    Happy holidays and merry Christmas.


    Thank you, that is beautiful.


    Indeed, even to a cynical Jewish atheist like me. Merry Christmas, Doc, peace and goodwill.

    Thanks, Mike, and thanks, moat. Happy New Year to you and yours.

    In quotes


    There is no visible disorder.No crime-what could be more innocent than the birth of an artis​an'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.

     Barges are unloading soil fertiliser at the river wharves. Soft drinks and sandwiches may be had in the inns at reasonable prices.  Allotment gardening has become  popular. The highway to the coast goes straight over the mountains and the truck-drivers no longer carry guns. Things are beginning to take shape. It is a long time since anyone stole the park benches or murdered the swans.There are children in this province who have never seen a louse, shopkeepers who have never handled a counterfeit  coin, women of forty who have never hidden in a ditch except for fun, Yes in twenty years  I have managed to do a little. Not enough of course. There are villages only a few miles from here where they still believe in witches.............


    Today.....judging by the trio who came to see me .....with an ecstatic grin on their scholarlyb faces , the job has been done. "God has been born.....we have seen him ourselves. The World is saved. Nothing else matters....


    One needn't  be much of a psychologist to realize that if this rumor is not stamped out now, in a few years it is capable of diseasing the whole Empire,,,,,


    Naturally this cannot be allowed to happen.Civilisation must be saved 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,...And for me personally would mean that God had given me the power to destroy Himself......Why should He dislike me so?I've worked like  slave. Ask  anyone you like. ...I've taken elocution lessons. I've hardly ever taken bribes,  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.






    Merry Christmas


    Thanks Flav and happy holidays, a merry Christmas, and a happy New Year to you and all. 

    Auden’s For the Time Being is always excellent Advent reading. Thanks, Flav.

    I've been hooked on Auden since the "Musee  des Beaux Arts"  on the first page of the 1945  The collected poetry

    About suffering they were never wrong

    down to

    Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

    To the extent that we keep a print of Icarus on the dining room wall.


    Thanks for this excellent Christmas message.


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