After Christmas: Massacre and Hope in Bethlehem

I have been eager to tackle Matthew 2:13-18 for a couple of years now and I finally had the opportunity to choose my own text to preach on this Sunday, so that is what I chose.

Matthew 2:13-18

“Now After they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child and destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my Son.”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through 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 are no more.”

Jeremiah 31:15-17

This is what the Lord says: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more.”

This is what the Lord says: “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.

Engaging a text of terror

Surely, this is “a text of terror,” a phrase coined by biblical scholar Phyllis Trible.  And that such a text should exist in our scriptures makes us uneasy.  In preparation for this sermon I set out to do some field research.  I interviewed several people, of various demographics.  I read them the story of Jesus’ birth as recounted in Luke ch. 2.  The story is very familiar to us; many of us likely know it by heart.  Luke speaks of angels visiting lowly shepherds and a star guiding the Magi to a great king born in a humble and dirty manger.  After reading the story I asked people to tell me what kinds of emotions or thoughts it elicited: how did it make them feel? What kinds of words came to mind to describe the story?  The most common responses included terms like love, redemption, expectation, fulfillment, hope, familiarity, and comfort, great and wonderful surprise.  These were responses that I expected.  Then I read them the text from Matthew 2:13-18 and you can imagine the contrast in reactions.  The text recounting the massacre in Bethlehem elicited feelings of horror, disgust, and confusion: one of my friends asked “why do Mary and Joseph get to escape with their baby but the other infants in Bethlehem are slaughtered?” It seems unjust, utterly meaningless, and “completely incongruous with the idea of a loving God sending salvation to earth.”  Indeed, what are we to do with such a text?  This text, too, has been preserved in our sacred scriptures for centuries.

It is texts such as these, suggests Phyllis Trible, which the church must not shy away from, must engage and wrestle with, the way that Jacob wrestled with the angle at Peniel.  We often choose the Lukean account of the birth of Jesus to read at Christmas, and for good reasons.  For instance, Luke provides details surrounding Jesus’ birth that are absent elsewhere in the Gospels.  However, when we only read the Lukean account, we miss this strange and terrible event that Matthew recorded.  After Jesus’ birth, after the shepherds and the Magi have come to worship the baby king and have left again, chaos ensues and Herod, feeling threatened by this proclaimed baby king has all the infants two years and under in Bethlehem slaughtered.  And so the words spoken by the prophet Jeremiah long ago ring true once again: “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.”(v. 18)

This text of terror, rather than the majestic and humble entry of Jesus into the world, will certainly resonate with many this Christmas season.  Who are those today, who after Christmas, after Jesus’ birth, are still weeping and mourning?  Who perhaps do not hear the glorifying sound of the angels, or see the hope of the bright star? Most immediately comes to mind the recent horrific shooting in Connecticut.  The families and friends of these innocent children are weeping and in great mourning, because their children are no more.  Historically, one might also think of the residential school system and the children that were taken away from their families, stolen away, as good as dead to their parents, many of whom would never see them again.  There are so many times throughout history where we can recognize Rachel’s tears.  This text of terror poses a serious and daunting question: how are we to receive the grace and peace of the Christ-child when massacre, despair, violence, grief, overwhelm us?  Matthew does not allow us to ignore this question by skipping from the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem to Jesus at the Jordan with John the Baptist.  No, Matthew’s narration is stark, and he does not permit us to erase the massacre in Bethlehem from our memories of the Jesus story.  This is the kind of world Jesus is born into. This is the kind of world we still live in. Matthew does not allow us to separate the real despair and grief of our lives from the grace and peace of Emmanuel, God with us.

Disillusionment with Christmas

Allow me to change gears for a moment: I have often struggled with the idea of Christmas.  I’ll be honest with you; I am often deeply disgusted by Christmas, both in society, and yes, even in the church!  In society consumer culture drives the Christmas market.  Everywhere is the injunction to buy, buy, buy, to enjoy, to gift yourself what you deserve because you have worked so hard all year.  And I see the church caught up in this as well.  I see empty rituals and gestures of piety, unspoken competitions for the biggest, best, brightest Christmas program, preaching on the joy of giving, encouragement for charity.  But even in all of this seemingly good stuff, praise, joy, giving, charity, rarely do I see people wrestling with it. Rarely do I see these gestures changing people’s lives.  Is that not what the Gospel is about?  God becomes incarnate so that we might follow him as humans in a radically different way of life that reaches into every corner of our lives?

The commodification of Christianity is not new to us and every Christmas season there are at least a few sermons floating around trying to address exactly this.  But even then, I have found them lacking.  Perhaps I am just a cynic. But if I am, then I am a cynic because I want something more, something radical, a gospel message that will knock me off my feet.  It is true, I will be the first to admit, that I have become very disillusioned with Christmas, and even with the Christmas story in scriptures.  Even the story of the baby, a king, born in a humble dirty manger, is lost on me.  But this year, when I was reading through the Gospel of Matthew, and I came upon this text of terror, this massacre in Bethlehem after Jesus’ birth, I was deeply disturbed in a new way, and I think in a very important way.  This is a text that seems highly at odds with what we call the spirit of Christmas.  This is a text that threatens to pull our joy and hope for peace right out from under us.

At this point you might be asking yourselves, so, what is Melanie’s point? Does she just want to make us uncomfortable with the Christmas story we all know so well? To shake us up? Does she want to disturb us by drawing our attention to this horrible text? Is she just a scrooge disguised as a preacher, stealing our Christmas joy?  No. At least I hope not. That is not my intention. I do want to make us less comfortable with the Christmas story, because I do not think it is a comfortable one. I want us to pay attention to all parts of it and to recognize that maybe we don’t have as much of a handle on “the spirit of Christmas” as we thought we did.  I want us to pay attention to those who are weeping and mourning, to pay attention to the tears of Rachel in our world into which the Christ-child is born.

Rachel’s Tears

Rachel’s tears are mentioned three times throughout the scriptures.  The first time occurs in Genesis when Leah bears many children but Rachel remains barren.  She later dies giving birth to a son whom she names Ben-Oni, meaning son of my trouble.  Jacob renames him Benjamin, meaning son of my right hand. (Gen. 35:18)  The next time Rachel’s tears are invoked by the prophet Jeremiah.  The context is exile.  Israel is living under Babylonian imperial rule, away from their homeland.  In this setting, the Lord speaks through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more.” (Jer. 31:15)  Ramah is a town near Jerusalem through which the Israelites passed on their way to exile in Babylon.  Here, and along other sites on the way to Babylon, Israel weeps for their sins, and the exile which they have brought upon themselves and their children.  In Jeremiah, the weeping of Rachel addresses a weeping people.  Images of weeping and mourning, tears and water, occur throughout the scrolls of Jeremiah.  It is not surprising then that Jeremiah is often referred to as the prophet of tears.  For example, we read, “I am broken with the breaking of the daughter of my people” (Jer. 8:21). “Oh that my head was water; my eye a fountain of tears; thus I might weep day and night for those of my people who are slain” (Jer. 9:1). We read again (9:l7bff.): “Call the women mourners; they must commence wailing . . . that our eyes may run down with tears and our eyelids may spout water.” And in Jeremiah 13:17, it states: “If you do not hearken, then my soul shall weep in hidden places; my eye shall weep bitter tears; yea, tears shall run down.” To conclude with one more, we read in Jeremiah 14:17: “My eyes shall run down with tears day and night, and not cease.” Jeremiah has written the songs of Lamentations–one song of tears in which he curses his birthday. Is it any wonder then that Jeremiah thinks about Rachel?”  And finally, Rachel’s tears appear in the gospel of Matthew: “There is a voice in Ramah; a lamentation; a very bitter cry; Rachel is weeping over her children; she refuses to be comforted about her children because they are not.”” (Klass Schilder, trans. Stuart Jones @ http://www.kerux.com/documents/KeruxV01N3A1.asp)

But the words of the Lord spoken through the prophet do not end with weeping and despair.  In the very next verse Jeremiah continues to speak: “This is what the Lord says: 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.”” (Jer. 31:16-17)  Here weeping and mourning is a work of the people of God.  And God says that this work of weeping will be rewarded.  Weeping and crying out is a motif throughout the Old Testament.  The people of God cry out to God in their despair, God hears them, and God remembers them.  And not only remembers them as if in God’s memory, but God re-members them, re-forms and re-shapes them as God’s people, as a people faithful to the covenant.  But the most important point I want to highlight for our purposes this morning is the first part of v. 17: ““So there is hope for your future,” declares the Lord.”

Cheap Hope, Costly Hope

The Hebrew word for “hope” here is tiqva.  The term carries a range of meanings including hope as we usually think of it, as expectation, anticipation, even optimism.  Interestingly, however, the same word, tiqva, hope, is also used in the story of Rahab in Joshua.  The red cloth she ties outside her window, which serves as a sign securing her safety from the utter destruction of the city of Jericho, that cloth is the Hebrew word tiqva, hope. So the verse in Joshua would read, “And she tied the scarlet cord in the window.” Or, “And she tied the tiqva, the hope, in the window.”  As we know in the story, this red cord is what protects Rahab from the utter destruction laid upon the rest of the city.  Amidst the chaos of battle, of destruction, of death and likely much weeping, the red cord flies from her window as hope.  Hope amidst, not apart from despair. (blue letter bible, strong’s concordance, online, http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/ lexicon.cfm?strongs=H8615&t=KJV&page=1)

This hope in Jeremiah is not a sentimental or nostalgic comfort, a pat on the back, a gloss-over the pain and despair of exiled Israel, of the massacre in Bethlehem, of the residential schools, of the shooting in Connecticut.  This hope is not even optimism in the face of despair.  This hope is not about positive thinking. No, here we have a radical vision of hope, not our ideas of cheap hope, mere optimism that makes us feel better for a while.  No, this is a vision of radical and costly hope.  Theologian William Stringfellow wrote on the difference between optimism and hope in one of his autobiographical pieces: “Optimism refers to the capabilities of principalities and human beings, while hope bespeaks the effort of the Word of God in common history. Moreover, that distinction signifies that hope includes realism, while realism undermines or refutes optimism.” (A Simplicity of Faith: My Experience with Mourning)  “Hope bespeaks the effort of the Word of God in common history.” That sentence affirms that God is working in the world in ways we can hardly imagine, in ways we are often blind and deaf to.  God is working in the world amidst Rachel’s tears, amidst the proliferation of violence, injustice, despair, grief, and the Christ-child is born into this world, amidst us, God with us.

Matthews’ inclusion of this text between the birth of Jesus and the ministry of Jesus is a striking reminder of the sort of world God inhabits.  The joy, grace, peace, and hope of the Christ-child, the messiah, is not a blanket over the despair and horrors of the world in which we live; rather, it is the beginning of a radical transformation of such a world. A world of terror, God’s beloved creation, that God desires to redeem.  The hope that the Jeremian prophecy speaks of, is not hope from the world, from reality, but hope amidst, within reality, hope for the world, the nations.  The birth of Emmanuel, is the birth of God-with-us, not us with God somewhere out there beyond the world.  Christ came to transform this world, not to help us escape from it.  Jesus is born in the midst of tyranny, and already at his birth he poses a threat to Herod, a challenge to imperial power.

In his commentary on Matthew, theologian Stanley Hauerwas writes that “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.  Christians are tempted to believe that the death of the children of Bethlehem “can be redeemed” by Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection.  Donald MacKinnon, however, insists that such a reading of the gospels, in particular the destruction of the innocents of Bethlehem, is perverse.  For MacKinnon, the victory of the resurrection does not mean that these children are any less dead or their parents any less bereaved, but rather resurrection makes it possible for followers of Jesus not to lie about the world that we believe has been redeemed (1979, 182-95)” (Hauerwas, Matthew, 41)

“Matthew’s account of the death of the children of Bethlehem is stark.  No attempt is made to explain or justify this horror.  Rather, Matthew reminds us that Jeremiah prepared us for such a horror, warning of the loud lamentation that would come from Ramah.  There Rachel would weep for her children, refusing to be consoled (Jer. 31:15). Rachel, moreover, rightly refuses to be consoled.  The gospel—the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus—is not a consolation for those whose children are murdered.  Rather, those who would follow and worship Jesus are a challenge to those who would kill children [to preserve power, and even in the name of peace, freedom, and security].  The Herods of this world begin by hating the child, Jesus, but, as Frederick Dale Bruner observes, end up hurting and murdering children (2004, 68).  That is the politics, the politics of murder, to which the church is called to be the alternative.” (Hauerwas, Matthew, 41).

Thus we have come full circle.  Back to the questions with which we began: What are we to do with such a text of terror in our scriptures?  And, how are we to receive the grace and peace of the Christ-child when massacre, despair, violence, grief, overwhelm us?  The text might not answer all of our questions, but it does give us a picture of hope that far exceeds mere optimism or positive thinking.  This hope is not cheap, but costly, just as Christ’s grace is not cheap, but costly.  Matthew, drawing on Jeremiah, gives us a picture of Christ as a messiah who comes to redeem the world, not to liberate us from it, but to liberate us in it, to transform the very world of violence and despair, of weeping and mourning, of meaningless slaughter, into which Jesus himself is born.  And thus, while Jesus escapes death at the hand of Herod, he does not at the hand of Rome.  Jesus’ ministry is the work of this costly hope, not the cheap hope offered to us by the powers of the world.  This costly hope attends to the tears of Rachel, the weak and vulnerable, those exploited by the powers and principalities of the world.  This costly hope liberates and redeems us from the idolatrous hopes we have in power and control.  Christ submits himself to the consequences of such a hope on the cross, a costly hope indeed.  And the resurrection is not the justification of the massacre in Bethlehem, but the radical liberation of a world order in which such horrific events occur.  How would our Christmas season change if this is what we thought of when thought of Christmas spirit?  How might such a radical understanding of hope change our everyday lives?  These are questions we must continue to engage and to wrestle with, as a community of faith, if we want to take our scriptures seriously, and if we want to proclaim the Lordship of Christ.

I would like to close with a poem.  This was written by a friend of mine in Bangalore, India, just a few days ago on Dec. 25.

The Starless Night

by Musab Iqbal (Dec. 25, 2012)

Time bleeds
when the heart aches.
Then I know
irises don’t bloom.
The balloon without the thread
is lost in dust, and
absorbed by colorlessness.
The dream is missed on the way.
And thoughts all gathered together
are forgotten at the shop next to the house
which was droned last night.
The paralyzed thus stumble upon
an abyss of uncast vision.

Surely this is a poem of Rachel’s tears. These are words that can be spoken after a massacre in Bethlehem, after residential schools, after a shooting in Connecticut.  “The paralyzed thus stumble upon an abyss of uncast vision.” Have we missed the dream on the way? Let us cast and recast a vision of radical hope, of costly hope, of liberating hope, of the Christ-child, into a weeping world.

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