Do you remember the penetrating eye of Sauron from the Lord of the Ring movies? In those films, Sauron was the malevolent force constantly searching for the one ring of power. If he found it he would reduce Middle Earth to abject thralldom. The filmmakers represented this ultimate threat as a high watch tower and Sauron’s unblinking eye as the search light, looking for Frodo and Sam. Would he find them? The tension in the story derived from this situation: The heroes had to walk beneath the dark tower, hiding from Sauron’s glare, on their quest to end the very darkness that the tower represented.
It was the same in Bethlehem. If there exists a tale richer in bucolic charm than the Nativity, I am not aware of it. We have always been charmed by this story. Children have dressed up as angels and shepherds, farm animals have been positioned around the stage and we have been comforted by the creche scene of little baby Jesus lying in the manger. Yet above it all a dark tower loomed.
Yet above it all a dark tower loomed.
Sauron did not inhabit this tower, but another member of the club did: Herod the Great. A few years ago I made a trip to Israel and one stop on the tour was Bethlehem. The town’s ancient center is on a narrow ridge that extends south from the hills of Jerusalem and then comes to a terminus at Manger Square. The land falls away on three sides and from the top one can see a small basin, filled now with homes but also olive groves and open space where young boys still lead sheep. The Nativity story certainly fits here. However, in the distance, an unnaturally sharp hill rises and unsettles the image, like a thorn on a rose bush. This is the Herodium.
The Herodium is a palace-fortress built by the wicked king and it looms over Bethlehem as a dark tower, injecting menace into the pastoral locale just as Herod does the Christmas story by ordering the deaths of the innocents. Was Herod in the tower when the Christ child was born? Whether Herod was there or somewhere else, what is certain is that Jesus was born into a dark world filled with Herods and Caesars and other bloodthirsty paranoid men. Jesus was born into a world filled with abused women and neglected children. He was born into a world of the self-righteous and the crushed. He was born into a world filled with lonely souls. He was born under a dark tower whose foundations are sin, death, and hell and whose foundations were to crumble when the stone rolled away from the tomb.
But before that came Bethlehem and Immanuel, born for us. We, who are a part of this dark world, belong around the manger in Bethlehem. Like the shepherds and the Magi, we have been called to the manger and we need to be there. Whatever dark tower is throwing shade on us now, the light from Bethlehem has overcome it. Jesus came for us. God is with us. The dark tower has not prevailed.