Rachel weeping

Christmas celebrations often focus on sentimentality with attempts to recapture childhood innocence and wonder at all things magical. So to be plunged into a heart-rending description of the inconsolable rawness of a mother's grief in the second chapter of Stephen Cottrell's book Walking Backwards to Christmas is painful. This book is my rather slow Advent reading this year.

In the chapter called 'Rachel', Stephen Cottrell puts himself in the shoes of one of the mothers whose child was slaughtered in Bethlehem after Jesus' birth, according to Matthew's account:
"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."Matthew 2: 16 - 18.
Stephen Cottrell's imagined first person account of a mother's trauma when the soldiers came to kill her child makes truly unbearable reading, as shown in this brief extract:
"They turn. They push me away. I scream. One long, terrible cry that comes from the centre of my bowels and can never be silenced. I jump up to stop them, and one of them holds me down. Holds me and grips my throat like it is nothing, just a pod he could snap open.
It happens. In terrible slow motion. One of them moves to the cot. He picks up my little child, my firstborn son, my joy..."
 I could hardly bear to continue reading and had to make myself read the full horrific story.

The massacre of infant boys by King Herod as told in Matthew 2: 13 - 18 doesn't often feature on Christmas cards - far too grisly. Such cruel images would spoil sentimental Christmas pictures. 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. In a world where so many vulnerable children are hungry, neglected, diseased, abused and murdered, where tyrants still crush the powerless, the story of the murdered babies of Bethlehem still speaks into today's real world. The grief of parents who suffer the death of their children, for whatever reason, is still a universal story. 

It is a story that is told poignantly and beautifully in the old English carol known as the 'Coventry Carol', which each time I hear it at Christmas 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 full Christmas story.

Image Credit: Joseph's Dream by Rembrandt, Source Wikipedia


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