In February each year, the charity Open Doors publishes its World Watch List. This constitutes the 50 countries where it is most dangerous to be a Christian – places where it is not just frowned upon but actually illegal to convert or own a bible, and where persecution is commonplace. Sadly, the list could be longer than 50, and the levels of danger experienced by Christians have risen sharply in many places over the last 20 years.
Whilst many of these countries will point to a clash of religious cultures as the root of this issue, in other places it is much more overtly political. No matter that most Christians are peace-loving, servant-hearted, and in many other respects model citizens: hardworking, clean living, law-abiding. Power corrupts, and there are many ‘powers’ across the world who hate the idea that any of their citizens might ultimately worship a different boss. Or indeed that they might themselves be answerable to a Higher Power.
This insecurity in the face of the Lordship of Christ is nothing new. It started right from his birth. As the Magi enter the court of puppet King Herod, propped up by the Romans and every bit as venal and ruthless as popular history makes him out to be, news of a new king, a true king, is not welcome.
Herod has already executed several members of his own family, including his wife Mariamne, in the paranoid belief that this will help him cling on to power. To have foreign travellers journeying hundreds of miles to worship someone else right on his doorstep is frankly horrifying, and yet another threat to his rule.
We love to read the prophecies of the coming Messiah, one of which is quoted in today’s reading. They stir the heart and fire the imagination. But Herod’s response sets another, more sobering context for these prophecies. They never come in a vacuum. A new source of authority threatens the old order, however radically different this new authority might be.
Today let’s pray for just and godly leadership around the world – we need it as much as ever. And let’s also give thanks for the freedoms we still enjoy, whilst praying blessing and protection for our brothers and sisters around the world who face similar dangers to those faced by the Magi and the Holy Family. May the joy of the Lord be our – and their – strength today.