There are certain parts of the Christmas story I just don’t like much. Namely, the wise men.
Now don’t get me wrong, the wise men – sometimes called the magi – are far superior to, say, the shepherds, as far as bringing exotic intrigue and holy mystery. But I’d really like to make the next part of their story – the slaughter of the innocents – go away. It’s kind of like the story of Noah. You’ve got Noah’s astounding faithfulness and aren’t the animals so cute and, oh yeah, everybody else dies a horrible death.
Here’s how Matthew puts it in his Christmas narrative.
When the [Magi] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. "Get up," he said, "take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him."
So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod… When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”
Right in the middle of this wondrous story about heavenly hosts and followed stars and baby Jesus, is this horrid, despicable act of ignorance and violence, executed by a man made miserable by his own fear. Right in the middle of the glorious, we have horror.
Rabbi Irving Greenberg offered the following "working principle" response to the silence of many Christians during the Holocaust. "No statement,” he said, “theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the burning children.”
We can’t sit and talk about how wonderful God is in the face of such atrocious displays. The only true response to horror is lament.
And that’s what Matthew gives us: a deep, timeless lament. It’s Rachel, mother of Benjamin and Joseph, dead hundreds of years, weeping, refusing to be comforted. A cry from the very grave, to bring down the heavens. There is no comfort here. Little children have been recklessly slaughtered. A voice is heard in Ramah…
As moving and upsetting as this episode is, the most troubling thing for me is not the killing. The most troubling thing for me is the lack of divine intervention. Yes, the slaughter of the innocents, on Friday and two thousand years ago, is absolutely and unequivocally evil. And so was the Rwandan genocide, so is the trade in children for slavery, so is severing of limbs for diamonds. Horrible and abhorrent things happen all around us, every day. That does not make them ok, it makes them grotesque facts of life.
But wait a minute.
Jesus was spared.
And that’s what really sticks in my craw about this story: both Joseph and the wise men are warned by that angel. None of the other parents are warned. Historians believe there were probably around thirty to forty toddler boys killed.
What, an angel doesn’t have time for forty visits in a night? All the other angels were busy? Why did these other parents have to suffer? Why did God not intervene for them too?
That’s the rub.
I mean that’s The Question: why horror? Why are some left to suffer and others not? If God is a loving God, why does anyone suffer?
Why do generations of mothers keep having to weep for their children?
I could conjure all sorts of theologically dry answers like, “There’s free will, and if we can chose to love that also means we’re free to be evil,” and, “Sometimes there’s the devil,” and on and on and on. Theological gymnastics may satisfy our intellect, but they won’t satisfy Rabbi Greenburg. Nor will they satisfy Rachel.
And seriously, God, you were there – you were right there sending angelic visions to two other houses that night. Why not a couple dozen more? “Well Jesus was the important one and he couldn’t die then because He wouldn’t fulfill His mission…” And again we get in this merry-go-round of trying to get God off the hook. As Bono, from U2 croons, “Stop helping God across the street like a little old lady.”
Of course, Jesus ultimately didn’t escape slaughter. No matter what you believe about his divinity, He indeed suffered an ugly, bloody, long, and torturous death. And the cry of Rachel that rang out in the desert of his boyhood, reverberated yet again at the foot of His Cross. A voice is heard in Jerusalem, weeping and great mourning, Mary weeping for her child and refusing to be comforted, because He is no more.
Yet that doesn’t answer Rabbi Goldberg. I don’t why those children of Bethlehem couldn’t have lived. But what I do believe is this isn’t where the story ends.
As is true throughout most scripture, if a writer quotes just a bit of a psalm or other poem, the writer is implying the whole. The Jeremiah poem that Matthew is quoting about Rachel comes smack dab in the middle of God promising restoration to Israel, the grand gathering up of God’s people into God’s kingdom. It’s full of statements like this:
Again you will take up your tambourines and go out to dance with the joyful.
Maidens will dance and be glad, young men and old as well. I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.
And to Rachel, God proclaims:
Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded, declares the LORD. They will return from the land of the enemy. So there is hope for your future, declares the LORD. Your children will return to their own land.
Right in the middle of hell is hope. Freedom. Joy.
Is the suffering of little children somehow necessary to achieve such freedom and hope? No. Hope can exist without horror, freedom without suffering, joy without weeping. Theoretically, it is possible.
But human history has not played out that way. Instead, reality has played out in violence, pain and heartache. It’s as if Matthew is telling us, yes, what Herod did was hideous, but truly I tell you that one day our hopes will be realized. Your mourning will be turned into gladness – you will have comfort and joy instead of sorrow.
Not this day; this day these children are mourned. But one day, Matthew says, this Jesus, this babe who escaped, one day, He will bring justice. He will one day bring hope. He will one day bring joy.
When Jesus finishes telling the disciples about the end of the world, describing unimaginable death and destruction, he says, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."
Take heart…take heart.
The message of Matthew and of Jesus is that the God who is only love, the God who suffers with us and through us and for us, and welcomes us home, has overcome this world of horror and hate and in its place brought love and hope.
So that’s my prayer this week of advent. That we could all, somehow, some way, take heart.
How do you take heart in the midst of suffering – or can you? What is your prayer this season?