- Isaiah 63:7–9
- Psalm 148
- Hebrews 2:10–18
- Matthew 2:13–23
The birth of Jesus according to the Gospel of St. Matthew is fraught with peril, flight, exile, and murder. Most of us never hear of this drama since these readings are rarely heard during Sunday worship. Christmas pageants performed by children often skip over this part of the story as churches tend to couple Matthew’s “Wise Men” with Luke’s “shepherds” at the manger scene.
We do get hints of Herod as the villain in the story. Wily and jealous of any usurper to his throne, Herod pleads the Wise Men to lead him to the new born King of the Jews so that he, too, might worship him. The Wise Men find Jesus and pay him homage with precious gifts. Warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they leave for their home country by another road.
Upon discovering that the Wise Men had tricked him, an infuriated Herod orders all male children in the Bethlehem area up to two years old slain. Joseph, warned in a dream, escapes to Egypt with Mary and the infant Jesus where they become refugees in a strange land until it is safe for them to return years later.
This story harkens back to several Old Testament stories. Raymond Brown sees the story as patterned on the Exodus story of the killing of the Hebrew firstborn by Pharaoh and the birth of Moses. Matthew presents the Massacre of the Innocents as the fulfillment of a passage in Jeremiah where we hear of Rachel’s weeping for her children – they will be no more. All these accounts speak of a world that is rage-filled, cunning, and in constant conflict. Life is valued, but it is a raw gift that future generations will live to carry on the family line, let alone the faith of the Hebrew people. As God’s people live in exile, there does not seem to be hope for restoration. The children are gone, so Rachel asks, “Will our faith have children?” With the Babylonian brutality that face the people, the answer must be “no.”
According to Walter Brueggemann in Hope Within History (1987: John Knox Press), Matthew writes of the brutality of Herod, who tries to eliminate the gospel by killing all male infants. “Herod wants to make sure that the faith has no children, because the only sure way to preserve the old order is to be sure this faith yields no children. The deathly truth is that Herod and Rachel are united in this moment in believing that there will be no children for the faith. That Herod draws that conclusion is one more act of self-serving brutality. Rachel reaches the same conclusion in deep chagrin and grief.”
Pam Fickenscher, a Lutheran pastor in Minnesota reflects, “For Christians, the birth of Christ can and must remind us that there can be no cheap comfort for those who mourn their children. Cute pageants and pious carols do nothing to stop the devastation of those who have lost a child — for any reason. Toys for Tots and even our best legislation for child health don’t make that big of a dent either. Only something deeper, God’s entering into this world of sorrows, will accomplish the depth of healing, the salvation we need.”
“This is not a cheap kind of sympathy, a soothing cliché that it will all work out in the end. Mothers still wail, daily. But if God is with us, then perhaps we can bear to listen to the cries of sorrow and pleas for justice of our time too, knowing that all our weeping is gathered up by the one who will turn it into dancing. Nothing, not even death, can separate us from our children, our parents, and even from our enemies. Nothing, not even a bottomless pit of grief or the intractable legacy of injustice, shall keep God away from being with us, yes, from saving us.”
In Remembering Rachel: The Slaughter of the Innocents she offers some additional reflections:
- What is your visceral response to the “slaughter of the innocents?” Do you identify with those who are rescued or those left behind?
- What contact do you have with exiles and refugees in your life? In what way can this season be a time to support them?
- Reflect on the words of Stanley Hauerwas (“Matthew” – Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, 2006): “Perhaps no event in the gospel more determinatively challenges the sentimental depiction of Christmas than the death of these children. Jesus is born into a world in which children are killed, and continue to be killed, to protect the power of tyrants [like Herod].”
Our world today still has tyrants. Children are dying of malnutrition, suffering in countries ravaged by war, and living as refugees throughout the world. As Christians, we are called to speak out for those who are voiceless and defend those who are persecuted. We have our faith to hold onto, which we are reminded of every Christmas when we celebrated Emmanuel, God-with-us. Brueggmann shares, “We are a community that believes our faith has a future. For it to be a future grounded in God’s grief, however, it cannot be filled with a future filled with deception or cover-up, pretense or denial, numbness or old habits. The future of our faith is a new future given precisely for us when we fully grieve that the old is lost and gone. The future is given to us by the God known fully in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. Of that One, Rachel, utterly bereft, weeps on Friday and Sarah, utterly stunned, sings on Sunday.”
We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Collect for The Holy Innocents)
- Beyond a Sentimental Gospel: The Slaughter of the Innocents by Daniel B. Clendenin on “Journey with Jesus”
- “Building Faith’s” post for December 27, 2010 Massacre of the Innocents
- The Rev. Mark Bozzuti-Jones, Associate for Pastoral Care at Trinity Church, Wall Street has a wonderful sermon reflection on today’s readings
Artwork: Portion of Duccio di Buoninsegna. Maestà (front, predella): The Massacre of the Innocents. 1308-11. Tempera on wood panel. Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Siena, Italy.
- Crying for our children (bishopgblogs.com)