The Shepherds, the Wise Men, and Herod


Christmas is why “there really is a difference between being brought up as a Christian and being brought up as a Jew or a Moslem or an atheist.” So writes the great G. K. Chesterton in his book, The Everlasting Man.

The difference is not one of “moral worth,” he notes. Any given non-Christian might treat his neighbor better than any given Christian. The difference is that every Christian child has learned an “incredible combination of contrasted ideas as one of the very first impressions on his mind. It is not merely a theological difference. It is a psychological difference which can outlast any theology.” “Bethlehem is emphatically a place where extremes meet,” says Chesterton. These extremes are represented by the Shepherds, the Three Wise Men, and King Herod. The more we understand them, with the help of extensive quotes from the eloquent and profound Chesterton, the more we can live fulfilled lives.

The Shepherds

“And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear” (Luke 2:8-9).

The Shepherds represent one side of our human nature. We humans experience a need for images that are “adventures of the imagination,” “the tempting and tantalizing hints of something half-human in nature,” and the intuited “significance of seasons and special places.” Human nature senses that “the soul of a landscape is a story and the soul of a story is a personality.” This side of human nature represented by the Shepherds culminates in the human impulse to be religious: “the human instinct for a heaven that shall be as . . . local as a home,” “that a particular place must be the shrine of a god,” and “that fairyland is a land.”

We humans want to be in a sacred place and touch sacred things. We want to see God. We want to hear God and actually see God listening to us. We want to feel the presence of God. We want religious experience that is emotional and physical—religious experience that engages our five senses and our emotions.

God does make Himself present, God can be experienced, through His Revelation. Faith is the acceptance of Revelation. The Shepherds were men of Faith. They experienced God’s Revelation through the angels’ proclamation of the good news of Christ’s birth and then accepted that as Revelation: “When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.’ And they went with haste . . .” (Luke 2:15). Then they experienced God’s Revelation directly when they saw “the baby lying in a manger” (Luke 2:16), and again they responded with Faith: “And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (Luke 2:20).

The Three Wise Men

“[B]ehold, Wise Men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.’ . . . the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was” (Matthew 2:1-2, 9).

The Three Wise Men represent another side of human nature. Chesterton notes that “they were those who sought not tales but the truth of things.” “We see in them the same curiosity that has moved all the sages” and all human beings throughout history. This side of human nature represented by the Wise Men culminates in the human impulse to be philosophical.

We humans want to make sense of things, and we want things to make sense. We want explanations, knowledge, logic, wisdom. Even when we get tired of learning, we never want to stay confused. We are glad to show others that we know something that they do not, whether to show we care or to show off. We can be tempted to prove to others that we are the smartest person in the room. But we especially want answers to the Big Questions: Why do we exist? What makes for the most meaningful life? What happens after we die?

God can also be known from Reason. The Wise Men were men of Reason. Without the benefit of Revelation, using their intellects to gather data and find the truth, the Three Wise Men discovered Him Who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. When “they saw the child with Mary his mother… they fell down and worshipped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11).

The Completion of the Incomplete

The Shepherds and Wise Men who searched for the baby heralded by angels and hailed by a star “had their reward,” says Chesterton. “[F]or philosophy [represented by the Wise Men] as much as mythology [represented by the Shepherds],” that reward was “the completion of the incomplete.” The reward for all who have ever found Christ and become His followers is the completion of the incomplete.

While the Shepherds and the Wise Men came “to find themselves confirmed in much that was true in their own traditions and right in their own reasoning,” they “are truly conceived as seeking something new and even as finding something unexpected. That tense sense of crisis which still tingles in the Christmas story and even in every Christmas celebration, accentuates the idea of a search and a discovery.” “Philosophy also, like mythology, [before Christ] had very much the air of a search. It is the realisation of this truth that gives its traditional majesty and mystery to the figures of the Three Kings [and Shepherds]; the discovery that religion is broader than philosophy and that this is the broadest of religions, contained within this narrow space [of the Bethlehem stable].”

Chesterton elaborates:

The Church contains what the world does not contain. Life itself does not provide as [the Church] does for all sides of life. That every other single system [of religion and philosophy] is narrow and insufficient compared to this [Catholic] one; that is not a rhetorical boast; it is a real fact and a real dilemma. . . . It has something for all moods of man, it finds work for all kinds of men, it understands secrets of psychology, it is aware of depths of evil, it is able to distinguish between real and unreal marvels and miraculous exceptions, it trains itself in tact about hard cases, all with a multiplicity and subtlety and imagination about varieties of life . . ..

The claim of Catholicism has always been that “it is catholic and that nothing else is catholic.” The root meaning of catholic is “complete” or “total”, from the ancient Greek words kat’ (“according to”) and holon (“the whole”). All that is good, true, and beautiful outside the Church does not contradict Catholicism but is incomplete in some way. Catholicism completes the incomplete.

Before the Catholic Church was founded by Jesus Christ, the history of humanity was the history of religion and philosophy co-existing without any significant interaction or mutual enrichment (except for the brief encounter between Hellenistic culture and Jewish Faith, as expressed in the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament). In Chestertonian terms, the Shepherds of the world and the Wise Men of the world had almost nothing to do with each other before Christ founded the Catholic Church. It was Catholicism that brought together the Shepherds and the Wise Men, religion and philosophy, Faith and Reason. It is Catholic doctrine that best clarifies God’s Revelation and that best defines what our Faith response to Revelation should be, a Faith response that never contradicts the dictates of Reason.

King Herod

“But there was a third element that must not be ignored and one which that religion [begun with Christ] forever refuses to ignore, in any revel or reconciliation.”

“Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the Wise Men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the Wise Men” (Matthew 2:16).

This Herod, who was king at the time of Christ’s birth, was the father of the Herod who was king at the time of Christ’s death.

Chesterton goes on to say that the unique character of Christmas is “the simultaneous striking of many notes; of humility, of gaiety, of gratitude, of mystical fear, but also of vigilance and drama. It is not only an occasion for the peacemakers any more than for the merrymakers . . . There is something defiant in it also; something that makes the abrupt bells at midnight sound like the great guns of a battle that has just been won.”

Herod’s role in the story of Christ’s birth must always be remembered “because [Herod] is a menace to the Church Militant and shows it from the first as under persecution and fighting for its life.”

[W]hile [the Church] is local enough for poetry and larger than any philosophy, it is also a challenge and a fight. While it is deliberately broadened to embrace every aspect of truth, it is still stiffly embattled against every mode of error. It gets every kind of man to fight for it, it gets every kind of weapon to fight with, it widens its knowledge of the things that are fought for and against with every art of curiosity or sympathy; but it never forgets that it is fighting. It proclaims peace on earth and never forgets why there was war in heaven [between Michael and Lucifer].

“[At the beginning of the Church,] Christians were invited to set up the image of Jesus side by side with the image of Jupiter, of Mithras, of Osiris, of Atys, or of Ammon. It was the refusal of the Christians [to do so] that was the turning-point of history.” It was also that refusal of the Church that led to persecution.

Catholics faithful to doctrine have been persecuted throughout the Church’s history. All too sadly, there have been Herods inside the Church who have persecuted her orthodox members in chanceries, seminaries, schools, parishes, even Vatican dicasteries. It is infidelity to all Catholic doctrine—contradicting or ignoring some infallible Catholic teachings—that has always been at the root of corruption in the Church.

Christmas in 2018

Let us celebrate the Incarnation of the always-existing God the Son in Jesus Christ, born of Mary to save us in the Kingdom of God from all sin and evil.

Let us affirm all that is good, true, and beautiful outside the Church.

Let us try our best to respond to God’s Revelation as readily as the Shepherds did.

Let us try our best to seek the truth as resolutely as the Wise Men did.

Let us realize that Christ always welcomes us to deepen our relationship with Him and then act upon that realization by doing our best to grow in fidelity to all Catholic doctrine.

Let us rely on God as we face contemporary Herods, both inside and outside the Church, who are threatened by the Kingship of Christ and by all the doctrine of the Church He founded.

Let us have confidence that Christ, Who first came to earth as a baby, will come again in glory to complete the Kingdom of God for all who, like the Shepherds and the Wise Men, did their best to seek Him.

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1 thought on “The Shepherds, the Wise Men, and Herod”

  1. This is so well-written, Marty! You weave Chesterton’s words and your own so well that this becomes one beautiful song of praise that lays out so perfectly, the “many chords” struck by the coming of the Savior into the world. It was a pleasure to read. Thank you for such a wonderful article!

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