READ : Matthew 2:13-18
Today David Bast’s message reflects concerns of the Christmas season. The holidays should be a happy season, right? It’s a time for family and friends, celebrations and joy, so what do you say when the sounds of the season include weeping for lost loved ones?
The holidays should be a happy season, a time for family and friends, celebrating and joy. So what can we say to those for whom this season brings only a painful reminder of sorrow and loss?
We can say that they are not alone. The sounds of the Christmas season do include laughter and singing, angels’ good news, shepherds’ rejoicing, wise men’s worship. But there is another sound that also belongs to this 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 bitter mourning. Listen to Matthew the evangelist describing the scene in Bethlehem shortly after the first Christmas. “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more” (Matthew 2:18).
An Unsentimental Christmas
It’s customary for the news media this time of year to run stories that highlight the incongruity of evil and sorrow in the midst of the holiday season. You know, the endless violence in the Middle East, armed troops patrolling the streets of Bethlehem even as pilgrims try to worship in the Church of the Nativity, poverty and homelessness against the backdrop of Christmas consumerism – that sort of thing. And we’re supposed to be shocked, I guess, by this glaring juxtaposition of ongoing suffering during a season of love and hope. 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 where everything is merry and bright and where all stories have happy endings is a fantasy. The Bible doesn’t tell that kind of story. In the Bible Christmas has a dark side. 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’m not sure 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 known as 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.
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 by singing him 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; on the contrary there are plenty of reasons for weeping, this year and every year. No, the message of Christmas is that because God has come into the world as one of us, now there’s reason for comfort and joy as well.
Flight into Egypt
Look one last time at the 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 somewhere, and they’re living there quietly – thanks, perhaps, to the generous gifts given to the little baby by those mysterious visitors from the east, the magi. But King Herod has learned about the birth of a possible rival and so an angel warns Joseph of the imminent danger and instructs him to take Mary and Jesus and flee for their lives into Egypt – 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 bitterest 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 slavery, becomes the haven of refuge.
And the irony isn’t 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 by now that he has been tricked by the magi, who aren’t going to return to him and identify Jesus so he can destroy him. 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 and sorrow 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, Jeremiah personified the desolation of that time as “Rachel weeping for her children.”
Now six more centuries have 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 could still apply today in the same place, and many other places as well.
What’s the Point?
So what is Matthew’s point in all of this? Why the geography lessons and all the quotations from the prophets? Matthew wants to emphasize certain 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 will recapitulate 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, just as Jacob and all his children did when they escaped from famine and saved their lives, as recorded in the book of 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 directly 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 live life as a hunted refugee. You know that his whole life, from beginning to end, 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 very same thing was true for him as a baby. Think of that poignant line again from the Coventry Carol, “But woe is me, poor child, for thee.” How great is the mercy and the condescension 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 down into humility and 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 start. Jesus has always had this effect on people; he has always divided the world into those who are for him and those who are against him. Here he is, just a little baby, and already people are taking sides. Some welcome and worship him, while others try to kill him.
You know that he still has exactly that same effect today. People are either drawn to him as the magi were, or they see him as the greatest threat to their self-interest and they turn against him like King 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 something of Herod within each one of us, you know. 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?