“Why are you afraid, Herod?”
If only Herod had the attitude towards Jesus that Pilate attributes to his son, Herod Antipas, in Luke’s Gospel: “I have conducted my investigation in your presence and have not found this man guilty of the charges you have brought against him, nor did Herod, for he sent him back to us.” We are left to wonder how differently things might have turned out for Herod the Great had his words to the Magi been honest and not shrouded in deceit: “When you have found Him, bring me word, that I too may go and do Him homage.”
This poignant question, asked by St. Quodvultdeus, Bishop of Carthage, in his homily delivered on the Feast of the Holy Innocents, gets to the heart of the mission of Jesus as well as the problem with political power separated from the holy virtue of Fear of the Lord.
In The Christian Idea of Man, Josef Pieper unites Fear of the Lord with the virtue of Courage. The practice of Courage, by definition, is "facing a fear and overcoming it." Pieper rightly asks if there is any fear that is so worthy of our being afraid that we should see it as the boundary of Courage: Is there anything so frightening that overcoming our fear would be detrimental to our ultimate well-being? His answer: Fear of the Lord.
The Tradition of the Church, from the Old Testament to Pope Francis, understands this particular fear as “filial” and in opposition to “servile.” This filial fear is that of a beloved child rather than a hired servant and carries with it the desire to be in union with the Father and the dread of being separated from Him forever because of our sin and guilt.
The four great temptations of this life - power, wealth, fame, and pleasure - provide us with what tend to be our greatest fears. If we have any of these four in great abundance, get used to them, see them as necessities, and derive our personal worth and meaning from them, then the possibility of losing them can drive us to do desperate things. The example of Herod’s reaction to the information brought to him by the Magi is a perfect case in point.
St. Quodvultdeus shines a light on Herod’s fear and reveals that it, like so many of our fears, is totally unfounded. What Herod saw was a threat to his throne and all the power that it entailed, but, as the holy bishop states, the coming of the Messiah should have been a welcomed event to this earthly king: “If [you] would have faith in the Child, [you yourself] would reign in peace in this life and forever in the life to come…He does not come to drive you out, but to conquer the devil.”
“Do Him homage” sounds a lot like Fear of the Lord, and would have exhibited a courage not known to be a part of the Herodian Dynasty’s DNA. Herod the Great worshiped power in the same way that his son worshiped pleasure, and history shows that the dynasty and all of its lusts barely outlived the Apostles.
History also shows how fitting it is that St. Quodvultdeus is the one to ask Herod the key question. As Bishop of Carthage, he tended to the flock in a city that had been a great center of Baal worship and its offering of child sacrifice. In The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton’s great rebuttal of The Outline of History by H.G. Wells, the great English Catholic polemicist, discusses at length the importance of Rome’s defeat of Carthage because it was a battle for the soul of the world.
Chesterton’s repeating of the words of Cato - Carthago delenda est! (“Carthage must be destroyed!”) is a battle cry that cannot be relegated to the dustbin of history. The spirit of Carthage and of the Herodians lives today in the worship of power and pleasure. The slaughter of the innocents continues around the world in war-torn streets and so-called clinics. The words of Quodvultdeus are as true for us as they were for Herod: “ You destroy those who are tiny in body because fear is destroying your heart. You imagine that if you accomplish your desire, you can prolong your own life, though you are seeking to kill Life itself.”
As we ponder all the events surrounding the Nativity, it is good to remember that fear has not lost its ability to destroy the heart. Only the love of that tiny Child, who is also King, can destroy the Carthage that lies in the shadows of all of our hearts and can free us from our only real fear -the slavery of sin and its eternal consequences.