In the church calendar December 28 is the Day of the Holy Innocents – the day when children were massacred on the orders of King Herod. It is, of course, an out-of-sequence commemoration. The actual event may have taken place a good number of months after the birth of Jesus.
Although there is no independent verification, this dreadful act is totally in line with the kind of man Herod became. Herod, for instance, killed his wife, Mariamne, and his two sons Alexander and Aristobulus. This caused Emperor Augustus to cynically observe that it was better to be Herod’s pig than his son! To ensure that there was mourning at his funeral, Herod ordered his soldiers to kill notable political prisoners: “So shall all Judea and every household weep for me, whether they wish it or not” (Josephus).
Herod was an insecure man, fearful of any kingly rival or messianic pretender. It was not surprising that he was deeply disturbed when he heard of the birth of a baby in Bethlehem, for whom the magi claimed the title king. Unable to trick them into disclosing the child’s identity, he sent in his troops to butcher every male child under the age of two. True, it did not involve hundreds of children, for Bethlehem was not a large town. Bearing in mind the high mortality rate of that time, it has been estimated that, if Bethlehem had a population of around 1000, then almost certainly no more than 20 boys would have been killed. Not that this makes the crime any less black.
Once Herod’s appalling mission was completed, only one sound filled the air, the sound says Matthew which Jeremiah had heard centuries before: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation. Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more” (Matt 2.17, 18). Originally these words taken from Jer 31.15 had no connection with Herod’s slaughter of the children. Jeremiah wrote them to depict the people of Jerusalem being led away in exile. On their sad way the exiles passed Rachel’s tomb in Ramah, a town just the other side of Jerusalem from Bethlehem. Jeremiah pictures Rachel weeping, even in her tomb, for the fate that had befallen the people.
What then do we, today, commemorate? For the preacher this story points to the fact that Jesus came into our world of pain and sorrow. Jesus was born in no garden of Eden – not for him a life of sunshine, free of tears. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a town associated with pain, sorrow, and death.
We need to be reminded of this. All too often the Bethlehem of Christmas festivity is remote from the harsh realities of the world in which we live. Bethlehem has become a town associated with dream and sentiment. “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see you lie! Above your deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.”. And when we are not in church, Bethlehem is associated with an excuse for a merry round of Christmas parties, which become an escape from the real world where life is tough and the innocent all too often suffer.
The truth is that for many of us is tough. We weep, we hurt, we experience loss and sorrow. What a comfort it is to know that Jesus the Babe of Bethlehem is also the Man of Sorrows, who understands.
But, thank God, there is more to celebrate than just that Jesus came into our world of pain and sorrow. Jesus also came to deal with our pain and our sorrow. The cries of Rachel are but passing. Our tears will one day turn to laughter. I find it significant that the verse Matthew quotes from Jeremiah 31 to describe the weeping of Rachel is the only gloomy verse in the chapter. Otherwise chapter is vibrant with hope: “They shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord… Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow” (31.12, 13); “There is hope for your future, says the Lord: your children shall come back to their own country” (31.17). Jeremiah speaks of a ‘new covenant’ God is going to make with his people. He will be their God, they will be his people.
The good news is that in Jesus God has made a new covenant. For through the world-shattering events of the cross and resurrection Jesus has dealt with sin, that potent force which is at the root of all the world’s injustice and suffering, and is now in of making all things new (Rev 21.5). At this moment his work is not complete. God has dealt the decisive blow to sin and death, but there is still potency in their death throes. D-Day is behind us, but V-Day has yet to come. We live in the in-between times – between the coming of Jesus in humility and his coming in glory. But in these in-between times Jesus offers to us his Spirit, who encourages us when we are downhearted, who brings comfort to us in our sorrow, who draws alongside us in our pain, and who strengthens us in our weakness. Yes, we have much to celebrate.