Carnage surrounds the birth of the child Jesus. All was not peace and good will. The Gospel reading for the first Sunday following Christmas recounts the fury of Herod and his order to kill all male children who were 2 years old and younger living in and around Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16). The magi had outwitted him, and his new awareness that a rival, albeit a baby, was on the scene drove his unhinged response. Pastors rarely preach the “slaughter of the innocents,” for it is nearly an unredeemable narrative.
Visual representations of this heinous order, repugnant with grisly details, are a form of artistic protest. Fully armed soldiers, protecting themselves against the helpless, brandish bloody swords in the foreground; they are surrounded by a panorama of dismembered children, wailing mothers and fathers bowed down in grief, and the crush of bewildered townsfolk. Peter Paul Rubens’ “Massacre of the Innocents” was closely linked with the suffering of his own land, particularly Antwerp, where over 8,000 were slaughtered in the religious wars of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The scene in Bethlehem is far from an isolated event
How did Jesus learn of this murderous act? It is not clear, but as he matured he observed that his ministry would bring a sword, and division of households would accompany his teaching. Religious zeal matters, but not when it turns to violence. While still a child, he does not yet know of the suffering catalyzed by his mysterious birth, but his parents carried an extra burden. Surely the news had spread from Bethlehem to Nazareth about the rampage of the soldiers. Had Joseph and Mary returned with the child to Bethlehem, the absence of any playmates his age would have been stunning.
They returned to Nazareth instead, guided once more by an angelic messenger through a dream. Here they will make their home and try to fit into the social circles they once knew. One can imagine that they returned to rumors and sotto voce remarks when Mary and her son walked by. They remembered a very pregnant newlywed who left town before the birth.
This tragic story is one of the hardest texts of Scripture, and we prefer to bask in the lingering glow of the birth narratives rather than engage this tale of terror. The providence of God — sparing one little boy while others perished — is scandalous, as Frank Tupper describes it. Too bad the other families of Bethlehem did not get the word. Only later will some proportionality return: the one will give his life for the many. Yet, this is of little comfort to those who have lost children because of some larger purpose, such as the return to Nazareth being a fulfillment of prophecy (Matthew 2:23).
This is the great difficulty of faithful belief, discerning the hand of God while human suffering continues unabated. It is one of the major Jewish protests against believing that the Messiah has truly come. Would things not look different if he had?
During Herod’s time, there was little people could do to protect their family, other than flee. Sadly, this scenario is being played out around our globe, and the great migrations of people too often compound misery.
Daily we witness the bloodbath in Aleppo, only one place among the many contexts where people are stripped of security. Hill tribes in Myanmar continue to experience threat in remote areas, and warfare is never vanquished for long. They have been forced off of their tribal land, and they make their way to camps along the Burma-Thai border. Villages in Africa dare not forsake their vigilance in resisting Boko Haram, for many lives are at risk, especially those of young women. Like the voice heard in Ramah, the grief of these resounds throughout the world:
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more (Matthew 2:18).
Given this ongoing reality, what is our task as Christians? We cannot settle for clichés about “everything happens for a reason.” Nor can simplistic notions of the soul-making value of suffering be our response. Not surprisingly, we usually apply this worn verity to someone else’s life. Even though divine purpose may escape us, we stubbornly trust that Holy Wisdom is at work in all of life; however, the hiddenness and imperceptibility of God’s action is hard to bear.
Yes, we can inhabit the public square and seek to shape policy. We can protest violations of human rights in letters, sermons and lectures. More often than not we must dare to stand in for God through acts of courage when divine silence is all we hear. In this we will find our humanity — and, hopefully, discover God at work.