Remember the Murdered Babies of Bethlehem at Christmas
I detest the Christmas season—not so much for the commercialism that, after all, runs through all of modern life, but for the nauseous sentimentalism.
The story of Jesus’ birth has absolutely nothing to do with cuddly babies, exchanging gifts, or celebrating family togetherness, let alone snow, reindeer, mistletoe, and Santa Claus.
It is about imperial control, social prejudice, unwed mothers, political refugees, pagan astrologers, violence, bereavement, and murderous dictators. As such, it opens a window into our own contemporary world.
Take the Gospel of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, where horrific murders take place amid this momentous event. In Matthew 2:14, Jesus, like Israel under the first Joseph, is taken to Egypt. And Herod, like Pharaoh before him, orders the slaughter of Israelite male children (v. 16).
Jewish readers of Matthew would also have picked up parallels with some nonbiblical Jewish traditions about the birth of Moses. The narrative presents Jesus, typologically, as a new Moses but especially as the true Israel who embodies God’s vocation to be a light to the nations as God’s obedient Son, a theme that is developed in the rest of Matthew’s gospel.
Sobering paradoxes abound in these infancy narratives. The Word to whom the universe belongs has no place to lay his head, let alone count as home.
The church is called to share in Jesus’ intercession for his world. This involves remembering the “groans” of God’s world in public prayers as well as public witness.
This includes the terrible suffering not only of the people of Ukraine and Myanmar but also of those in forgotten wars and political conflicts elsewhere. Climate change affects most severely the people who are least responsible for it. That is injustice.
The painful events of Jesus’ persecuted childhood were the anvil on which God would forge the emergence of a new and transformed Israel, ending their exile and ushering in a new covenant through his Son’s death and resurrection.
Why did God not warn the mothers and fathers in Bethlehem of Herod’s murderous plan, even as he did Joseph?
Such questions are unanswerable. Grief is a terribly lonely experience, but it also links us across space and time with a grieving humanity, longing for that day when God “will wipe every tear” from our eyes. “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:4).
The babies of Bethlehem will rise and flourish with us—a hope made possible by the one who was spared (but not for very long).
Until then, Rachel’s tears will always be part of the Christmas story.
Sharing her pain over the slaughter of the innocents enables us to journey with God in the darkness, with a foot in each of two worlds: the world that is groaning under the sway of idolatrous powers and the new world that has been birthed and is on its way.
This is an excerpt of a 9 mins read article, well worth reading.
We encourage you to read the full version of the article on the Christianity Today online magazine.
Cover image credits: Illustration by Mallory Rentsch / Source Images: WikiMedia Commons / WikiArt