The Half-Mile-High City
February 2, 2018
King Herod the Great has become famous in the Christian tradition for his desperate and maniacal attempts to eradicate any threats to his political power, even those as young as two years old (see Mt 2). Suffice it to say that the king’s greatness can hardly be measured by his charming personality or religious integrity. Instead, what earned this mad man the title of “Great” was his magnificent vision for architectural projects. His Herodium, which we recently visited, is no exception.
Herodium was something like the Versailles of its time. While it served as the administrative center of Judea, it also boasted of a state-of-the-art Roman bathhouse, luxurious living quarters, an elegant reception hall, and even a sizeable theater (with box seats for Herod, of course!). Only something as over-the-top as Herodium could do justice to a character as over-the-top as Herod. (In fact, Herodium was literally over-the-top: the hill Herod selected wasn’t tall enough, so he commissioned it to be enlarged artificially to ensure that it would stand as the mightiest point in the Judean Desert.)
What’s the purpose of taking time out of a pilgrimage to see such an “unholy” site, one built (read: dreamt up) by a man so temperamental and ruthless as Herod? As we were hiking up the mount and watching our Fitbits get all worked up, I couldn’t but think of how much the monster of Matthew 2 relates to the Tower of Babel problem of Genesis 11. Long before Herod had commissioned Herodium, humanity had tried to make a name for itself and by itself—that is, without God—through its own architectural feats. Long before Herod was known as “the Great,” humanity had tried to make itself great without the God who created it.
Fortunately, we pilgrims looking at Herodium today have the grace of good historical hindsight. We don’t see the mighty fortress once fit for an egomaniac king. We don’t see a functional bathhouse. We don’t see an active theater scene or an elaborate party room or perfectly manicured gardens. We see their ruins. We see the fossils of a kingdom since made extinct. We see the folly of a humanity that seeks to exalt itself with structures and systems that are eventually brought to ruins.
Perhaps, then, this once great site of a once great king has a lesson for us all: nothing we do is truly great unless we do it with and for the eternally Great—the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
By Ryan McMillin (Archdiocese of Chicago).
Photos by Declan McNicholas (Diocese of Gary) and Peter Pedrasa (Diocese of Tucson).