This 4th day of Christmas is 'Holy Innocents Day'. It is the day for the part of the Christmas story that children's nativity plays usually omit. It is the part we may want to forget, in order to keep Christmas 'merry' and continue an escape from what makes us miserable or afraid.
The massacre of infant boys by King Herod as told in Matthew 2: 13 - 18 doesn't often feature on Christmas cards. But a nostalgic and sanitised Christmas card scene was not the world into which Jesus was born. It is not the world in which we live. It is a story told in the old English carol known as the 'Coventry Carol'. That poignant carol reminds me that Jesus was born into the real world with all its mixture of harshness and compassion, hate, grief, joy and love. He was born to bear our griefs and carry our sorrows. That too is part of the Christmas story.
For a discussion about whether Matthew's account of the massacre of the infants by Herod is history or myth take a look at 'The Slaughter of the Innocents: Historical Fact or Legendary Fiction?'. The conclusion of that article is that history has not disproved the authenticity of Matthew's account, an important factor being that if the population of Bethlehem was only about 300 at that time, then the number of boys under 2 may only have been about 6 or 7. The murder of a few male babies in an obscure village was perhaps not sufficiently newsworthy for ancient historians of Palestine such as Josephus. That may explain why the only source for this story is Matthew's Gospel.
For the writer of Matthew's Gospel the slaughter of the Bethlehem baby boys was significant (even if the numbers were small). Matthew presents Jesus in the context of the history of the people of Israel, with Jesus like a new Moses. God protected Moses from Pharaoh's slaughter of Hebrew baby boys in Egypt. Similarly God used Joseph who was warned in a dream to flee from Bethlehem with Mary and Jesus. They sought refuge in Egypt and eventually returned from there, just as the people of Israel had done, led by a saviour figure - Moses.
In a world where so many vulnerable children do suffer neglect, hunger, abuse and even murder, where tyrants still crush the powerless, the story of the murdered babies of Bethlehem still speaks into today's real world. It is authentic. It speaks truth about what our world is like. The grief of parents who suffer the death of their children, for whatever reason, is still a universal story. The suffering of those forced by oppressive regimes to flee as refugees still goes on. The massacre of the innocents in places like Aleppo or the Yemen still goes on.
And all this cruel suffering and slaughter of innocents poses the question, why doesn't God do something? Why in Matthew's story were only Joseph and the magi warned in a dream of Herod's evil intentions? I am not going to attempt an answer to that question here. It is a question to keep asking, but I have never found a satisfactory answer. We ask the same question when any young person dies through illness, malnutrition, disease, neglect or murder. Sometimes all we can do is to learn to live with the unanswered questions.
Sometimes it is easier to blame God for apparently not intervening than to take a long hard look at ourselves. It is people who murder, not God. It is people who ignore the suffering of the innocent or the grief of those who mourn. This too is who we are as humanity. And it is from such sins that God longs to save us.
Why was Jesus saved from Herod's wrath? Because he is more than Moses. He is the Saviour of the world. The story of Christmas ends at the cross where his mother wept like the mothers of Bethlehem. Take a look at 'Holy Innocents' - an excellent blog post on this theme.
The story of the "Holy Innocents" is a story of inconsolable grief, expressed as Mattthew quotes, in the words of Jeremiah's poem:
"A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted,
because they are no more." (Jer. 31:15)
The story of the ‘Holy Innocents’ is placed by Matthew alongside the story of Christ’s birth with good reason. It is part of the meaning of the Incarnation, God becoming one with us in vulnerable human form, among babies who suffer and die, parents who weep. God is with us, suffers with us, as surely as a mother weeps for her dead child. He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. But God isn’t defeated by them. His love is greater, stronger than the worst that evil people can do. God in Jesus faced the helplessness and terror of death to save us from sin and give us hope. Jesus was born to die for us, though he did not deserve the cruel death he suffered. The baby Jesus grew up. Our faith in him needs to grow up too, not remain focused only on the child in the manger. We must also learn also to walk with the man of sorrows, familiar with suffering, acquainted with grief, born to die.
Image Credit: Commons Wikimedia, CC License