The Dark Side of Christmas

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Matthew 2:13-18

The holidays should be a happy season, right? It’s a time for family and friends, celebrating and joy. So what do you say when the “sounds of the season” include weeping for lost loved ones?

How much can one community take? As if the World Trade Center attacks weren’t enough, two months later a plane crashes in New York City, adding hundreds more to the death toll. There have been a lot of empty homes and heavy hearts in New York during this holiday season.

But this is no new thing. The sounds of the Christmas season include laughter and singing, angels’ news and shepherds’ witness. But there is also a dark side to Christmas, and there always has been. There is one more sound that also belongs to the season. It comes from far away and long ago, carried down to us on the winds of history, still able to be heard, if you listen hard enough. It is the sound of weeping. Listen to Matthew the evangelist, describing the scene in Bethlehem shortly after the first Christmas. “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more” (v.18).

Here is what happened. Matthew writes:

Now when [the wise men] had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt have I called my son.”

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more.”

Matthew 2:13-18


It is customary for the news media this time of year to run stories that highlight the incongruity of evil and sorrow in the midst of Christmas. You know, bombs raining down in Afghanistan while carols are sung at home; armed conflict in the Holy Land; troops patrolling the streets of Bethlehem even as pilgrims try to worship in the Church of the Nativity; bereaved families in New York and elsewhere struggling through their first Christmas without a father or a mother. And we’re supposed to be shocked, I guess, by this glaring juxtaposition of ongoing violence and suffering and sorrow with the message of love and hope that marks this season of peace and goodwill. But really, what do we expect? That human nature will somehow magically change each December? That the only thing needed to achieve peace on earth is for people to develop a little more of the holiday spirit? That grief and death can be banished from the world by the sound of Christmas carols?

No, the truth is, the idea of Christmas as a wonderful season of nothing but joy and peace and universal happiness is bogus. It’s a false picture owing much more to greeting cards and holiday television specials than it does to the Bible. A sentimentalized Christmas where everything is jolly and merry and bright and where nothing terrible happens is a fantasy. The Bible doesn’t tell that kind of story. In the Bible Christmas has a dark side. There suffering and sorrow exist right alongside the joy and hope; in fact, the dark background of the one makes the glory of the other all the brighter. In the biblical Christmas story, the air around Bethlehem is filled one moment with the sound of angels’ singing and the next with mothers’ weeping. The magi have scarcely left the scene before they are replaced with the figures of homeless refugees and Herod’s blood-stained soldiers. I don’t know just when our image of Christmas became so sentimentalized and romanticized, but earlier generations of Christians remembered the dark side of Christmas. Think, for example, of the haunting medieval Christmas song, The Coventry Carol.

Herod the king, in his raging,

Charged he hath this day.

His men of might, in his own sight,

All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor Child for Thee!

And ever morn and day,

For thy parting neither say nor sing,

By, by, lully, lullay.

Lully, Lullay, Thou little tiny Child,

By, by, lully, lullay.

Lully, Lullay, Thou little tiny Child,

By, by, lully, lullay.

Luke 2:15-20

There it all is, within the innocent confines of a Christmas carol: murderous rage, genocide, and a refugee family fleeing for their lives from jack-booted storm troopers – even as a young mother tries to quiet her frightened child during the unfolding terror by singing a lullaby. The dark side of the Christmas story reminds us that the world into which the Savior was born was – and is – not a very nice place, which is why he had to enter it in the first place. Christmas has always been a story of conflict and contrast: good with evil, light with darkness, joy with grief, hope with despair. The message of Christmas is not that there’s no reason to weep; there are plenty of reasons for weeping, as well we know in this year of our Lord 2001. No, the message of Christmas is that because God has come into the world as one of us, now there is a reason for comfort and joy as well. So let’s celebrate an unsentimental Christmas this year, confronted as we are by so much suffering, so many bereaved families, such a lot of weeping.


Look once more at the original story. Jesus has been born in Bethlehem, and Joseph and Mary have been staying with him there. They have long since moved out of the stable into a house some place, and are living quietly there – thanks, perhaps, to the generous gifts given to the little baby by those mysterious visitors from the east; the wise men, or magi. But Bethlehem will not be a safe haven for the Holy Family. King Herod the Great has learned about the birth of a possible rival from the magi, who naturally went first to the palace in Jerusalem to look for the newborn King of the Jews. How were they to know he would be a very different kind of King?

By now considerable time has passed. An angel of the Lord warns Joseph, that good and humble man, of the imminent danger to the Christ Child and instructs him to take Mary and Jesus and flee for their lives into Egypt, of all places! Egypt was popularly known in the Old Testament as “The House of Bondage” or “the Iron Furnace.” It was the land where the people of Israel had been held as slaves for 400 years, and the home of one of their long-term bitter enemies. Now it will become the refuge for God’s Son and Israel’s Messiah. There is a tremendous irony here that Bethlehem, the City of David, is no longer safe for David’s descendants, while Egypt, the place of Israel’s bondage, becomes the safe refuge. And the irony is not lost on Matthew, who quotes an Old Testament prophecy from the book of Hosea (“Out of Egypt have I called my son”). That originally referred to Israel’s deliverance during the Exodus. But Matthew applies it to Jesus, Israel’s Deliverer, whose life is being preserved in Egypt and who will return eventually from there to save his people from their sin.

Meanwhile, there is Herod back in Jerusalem. He realizes he has been tricked by the magi, who aren’t going to return to him and identify Jesus for him to destroy. So Herod gives the order, and his soldiers fan out to kill all baby boys in and around Bethlehem. Just to be safe, Herod orders the death of every child under the age of two. Once again Matthew turns to Old Testament prophecy to express the inner meaning of this atrocity. The mothers of Bethlehem, helpless in their grief, echo the sound of Rachel’s weeping. Rachel was the wife of the patriarch Jacob. She died in childbirth near Bethlehem and was buried there. And many centuries later the prophet Jeremiah used Rachel’s weeping as an image for the horrors of the time of the Exile. As foreign armies conquered the kingdom of Judah, slaughtering many of its people and carrying off others as prisoners to faraway lands, Jeremiah personified the desolation of that time as “Rachel weeping for her children,” the Jewish people. Now six more centuries had passed, and Matthew uses the same expression to describe the bereavement of another generation of mothers in the Bethlehem countryside. For that matter, the same words still apply today in the very same place.


So what is Matthew’s point in all of this? Why the geography lessons and the quotations from the prophets? Matthew wants to emphasize several truths about Jesus. The first one has to do with his real identity. Jesus is God’s very Son, the true embodiment of Israel, the actual subject of all the Old Testament’s prophecies. More than that, Jesus’ life recapitulates all of Israel’s history. Jesus is born in Bethlehem like the great King David, his ancestor. He travels down to Egypt to save his life, the same way Jacob and all his children did when they escaped famine and saved their lives, as recorded in Genesis. Then Jesus comes up from Egypt in a sort of second Exodus, as Moses and the people of Israel did before him. Matthew wants us to see that not just the prophecies, but the whole story of the Old Testament points forward to Jesus and his life. Jesus himself is the message, the content, not just of the New Testament, but of the Old Testament as well.

Second, notice the kind of life Jesus lived even from the very beginning. He knew what it was to suffer, to be poor and homeless, to start life as a hunted refugee. His entire life, from the very beginning, was an exercise in humility and deprivation. In fact, in the Apostles’ Creed, the great summary of the Christian faith, the life of Christ is summed up in a single word: “he suffered.” Years later as an adult Jesus would say that he had no place to call home, nowhere to lay his head. But the same was true for him as a baby. Think of that poignant line from the carol, “But woe is me, poor child, for thee.” How great is the mercy of God, that he should lower himself, not just to become a human being, but to become the kind of human being who draws forth our pity! For Jesus, the way of salvation was always the way of obedient suffering; no wonder then if it should be the same for us (Hebrews 5:8-9).

Finally, Matthew’s story about the dark side of Christmas draws attention to the sharply different attitudes exhibited toward Jesus right from the very beginning. Jesus has always had this effect on people; he has always divided the world into those who were for him and those who were against him. Here he is, just a little baby, and already people are taking sides. Some welcome him, while others try to kill him.

Jesus still has this same effect today. People are either drawn to him like the magi, or see him as a threat to their self interest and turn against him like Herod. The great poet W. H. Auden once said that he was convinced that Jesus was indeed God because no other religious figure made him want to crucify him. There is some of Herod within each one of us. But isn’t there also something of the magi, something that draws us to the Child, that makes us see in him a good, a blessing, that far transcends all the kingdoms of this world?

So you and I have a choice today: are we for him or against him?