“DO NOT be afraid,” the angel tells shepherds in the Gospel of Luke. “I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people.” The good news in Scripture was, of course, the birth of Jesus and the coming of the Kingdom of God. But as the Christmas story proceeds, there is still bad news to confront. Herod, the Roman-installed king of Judea, upon hearing reports of the birth of a child whom he fears will be a potential rival for power and glory, orders the killing of all male infants from Bethlehem — an event known as the Slaughter of the Innocents.

And so, Jesus of Nazareth, by some Gospel accounts, spent his earliest years as a refugee in Egypt, where his family had fled, and did not return to Judea until Herod had died. When he began to teach and preach as a young man, he found a ready following for his message, which was one of love, humility and understanding. But it was also profoundly upsetting to the established order. The author Tod Lindberg says of Jesus’ Beatitudes (“Blessed are the meek . . . those who hunger and thirst for righteousness . . . the merciful . . . the peacemakers”) that they provide “a dizzying commentary designed to turn upside down the political and social world of the Roman Empire . . . Jesus describes those who are truly fortunate, the lucky ones of their day. But it is not emperors, conquerors, priests, and the wealthy who enjoy this favor. Rather, it is the common people, those whom earthly success has largely passed by.. . .”

The message is universal. It’s no wonder that it has resonated through much of the world, Christian and non-Christian, over two millennia. It reflects values and sentiments common to many peoples and faiths. But it also marks out a difficult and challenging path, one that has proved hard to follow for Christians (and often their institutions) and non-Christians alike. “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free,” is one of the most familiar of Jesus’ proclamations. But much of the world is still not free, and the truth is under mounting assault, subject to a vast new array of distortions and malevolent misuses by those who would deny its very existence.

There have been many Herods over the centuries — leaders who, out of fear, greed or lust for power, have wrought death and destruction on their own people and others. Today new Slaughters of the Innocents are looming, most ominously in the land from which one of the Three Wise Men of Christmas is said to have traveled: the nation of Yemen. Hundreds of thousands of children there are threatened with death by starvation and bombing inflicted by the neighboring kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which has done all it can to stifle the horrifying reports and, of course, to silence those who say and reveal things that it cannot allow to be heard. Bringing urgent news of this kind to the world requires the work of many brave, devoted, disinterested men and women: journalists, principled government officials and judges, volunteer organizations that advance human rights and welfare, medical missionaries to the poor. It has cost a number of them their lives in numerous places, but their comrades carry on the work. In this holiday season, we remember them and the light they cast.

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