The murder of the Innocents (Matthew 2:13-23)

 “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 2:18)

Words from our Gospel reading today (from Matthew) that echo the words of the prophet Jeremiah (31:15) that echo the words of mothers (and fathers) of every generation who lose their children due to political violence.

As Herodotus wrote in the fight century before Christ, “in peace, children bury their parents; war violates the order of nature and causes parents to bury their children.”  It should not happen. It violates the order of nature, and yet it happens still.

Many of you know that I came back from Syria this year with a complete set of Syrian Arab Army (SAA) fatigues – the pants, the hat and the flak jacket – and that I wear my SAA gear regularly when I’m not required to be in my clerical uniform (minus the flak jacket when we’re in the middle of summer).  When people ask why I wear clothes so closely associated with death, I tell them the story that the person who gave me the uniform told me about what the people of Douma had told him.

Douma is a suburb of Damascus, about 10 km northeast of the city centre, and best known for being the site of an alleged gas attack in April of last year. This particular story though had nothing to do with gas attacks but was about the day these people in Douma had looked out their windows and saw the black utes of Jabhat Al-Nusra driving down their streets.

We have seen those vehicles ourselves in news footage – the black utes with the machine guns mounted on the back. Jabhat Al-Nusra is the Syrian franchise of Al Qaeda, and I think they changed their name again recently so that they can keep enjoying support from the West. They are, at any rate, the key rebel group still operating in Idlib, where the Syrian Arab Army, backed by the Russians, is currently finally closing in with a view to ending the war.

In this story I was told, the people of Douma see the black utes and they immediately go inside their homes and lock their doors and get out their guns. From what I was told, they got out their guns, not to shoot it out with the rebels, who they knew they had no chance of defeating, but to use on their own families, to save them from capture. They knew what these people did to children, and even to babies. They would prefer to see their family make a quick and dignified exit from this world than endure what these people would inflict on them.

Then they look out of their windows again and see the colours of the Syrian Arab Army. Now they know their kids will be going to school the next day, instead of to the graveyard. This is the Syrian army that I know – an army of dads and mums, brothers and sisters, defending their own families. I’m not suggesting they are all saints, but I believe that at the core of that army are ordinary people just trying to defend their homes, and that’s why I wear their colours with pride.

It shouldn’t happen – innocent children being under threat – and yet this has always been a part of the cycle of our history. Children burying their parents is hard enough, but God save us from that time of trial where parents bury their children.

“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 2:18)

The Gospel writer’s focus, of course, is on the murder of the boys of Bethlehem:

“When Herod saw that he’d 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.” (Matthew 2:16)

I know some scholars suggest that this slaughter never really happened. They say that because there are no independent historical records of any such slaughter in Bethlehem during the reign of Herod the Great. My thought is ‘why would there be any records kept?’ What newspaper would have thought it wise to publish that story?

I’m not only suggesting that the great powers back then probably controlled the public narrative, though that’s bound to be the case. Why would anyone have bothered to record this? Things like that happened all the time, just as they do today in Syria and Iraq and elsewhere, and most of these terrible events go unreported.

Bethlehem was a small town too. The number of children killed probably would have been dozens rather than hundreds. Who would have cared? Of course, the parents and the people of Bethlehem would have cared, but I imagine Herod’s advisors would have seen this as a shrewd move – a proactive action aimed at stemming potential rebellion before it started.

If word was getting around that a new king was being nurtured in Bethlehem, the long-term consequences for upheaval within the empire might have been enormous. Better to snuff out the fire before it gets going.

We are talking of ‘Herod, the Great’ here, of course, and not the relatively impotent Herod we meet later in the Gospels at the trial of Jesus, and one of the reasons this Herod was so ‘great’ was because he acted like this all the time.

Long before turning his bloodthirsty eyes on the children of Bethlehem, he murdered most of his own children, conniving with his son Antipater to have two of his other sons, Aristobulus and Alexander, falsely accused and executed.  Then, later, towards the end of his life, he had Antipater executed as well.

His bloodlust didn’t stop with his own children either.  He also had his wife, Mariamne, executed, along with most of her family (her brother, mother and grandfather), and this chiefly for the crime of being popular.

Herod, like all those who cling to power, was constantly watching his back, constantly fearing that one of those close to him was about to wrench the throne from him, and so he butchered all those who were closest to him, along with anyone else who got in his way, and so it comes as no surprise to find that the report of a king being born in Bethlehem draws a swift and merciless response. 

Jesus escapes the genocidal purge, of course, courtesy of another dream given to Joseph, and there’s a fair degree of dramatic irony in the way the story unfolds here.

Joseph has a dream that leads him to flee to Egypt, and if you know your Old Testament history, you know that his namesake –Joseph, son of Jacob (best remembered for his technicolour dreamcoat) – also had a dream that eventually led him to Egypt. Egypt became a place of refuge for the original Joseph and his family, just as it did for the later Joseph and Mary and their baby.

Eventually, of course, Egypt became a place of enslavement for Joseph and his people, and they made an exodus and settled in their own land. Now, ironically, the oppression is coming from their own people, and so the family returns to Egypt.

I guess that’s another reason why some scholars believe this slaughter never happened – because the whole story seems too neat and symmetrical.

Joseph has to go down to Egypt just as his forefather Joseph went down to Egypt, and if you remember the final act of violence from Pharaoh that led to the exodus, it was Pharaoh’s attempt to kill all the baby boys descended from Joseph. This time it is Herod who attempts to kill all the baby boys, and just as Moses escaped that genocide, so Jesus will escape Herod’s genocide and then come up out of Egypt.

Does that all seem a little too neat and lovely? Personally, I don’t think so. Indeed, I think if I were going to construct a story about Jesus in parallel with the story of Moses, why not have all baby boys of Bethlehem saved, just as all the first-born Israelite children were saved at the original Passover?

There are so many ways in which this could be made a nicer and happier story, for the truth is that this story is not nice or happy, which raises the obvious question – why is this story being told now, while the Christmas tree is still up and our homes are still covered in tinsel and we haven’t even finished opening all of the presents?

This isn’t a Christmas story at all, is it? It’s a story of murder and misery – of Rachel weeping and parents burying their children. What has that got to do with Christmas?

In truth, the Christmas story can be told of lot of different ways, and there are some competing narratives in the mix. I know we like our peaceful nativity scene, with Mary and Joseph looking serene and the gentle animals looking on respectfully, and the little Lord Jesus (‘no crying he makes’) at the centre.

You think of that image and you can hear the dulcet tones of ‘Away in a Manger’ playing in the background, and it brings back memories of happy times with family, and of times when we felt loved and secure. I don’t think that was the Gospel-writer’s intention when he related that scene. I think the whole point Luke was making when he passed on the story of Jesus, the stable, the manger and the shepherds, was that the story of God’s coming into our world in Jesus is a story that does not begin well.

I don’t know how we managed to romanticise the whole ‘no room at the inn’ part of the story. It seems to me almost incomprehensible that nobody had a bed for a woman about to give birth, and most especially in a Middle Eastern culture.

Yes, you hear of Palestinian women today giving birth at the roadside because they’ve been held up at a checkpoint by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), but that is rightly considered scandalous when it happens, and, of course, it reflects the animosity between the IDF and the Palestinian people. In this case, it’s not the Roman occupiers of Bethlehem who are denying Mary a bed. It’s her own people!

I’ve spent enough time in the Middle East to know that hospitality is one of the most cherished values in their culture. I remember once visiting the home of two martyrs in Damascus. The two sons in this family had both been soldiers and both been killed, and the mother and father invited our group into their small home where photos of their deceased sons were on display everywhere.

They were poor people and there were about ten of us. The immediate problem they had was that they needed to provide refreshments for all of us and they just weren’t equipped to do so. They were desperately brewing coffee and trying to give something to each of us, but they only had four cups, and so we had to take turns sharing from these cups lest we dishonour these people by refusing their hospitality.

Hospitality is everything in that culture, which is, again, why some scholars question the historical accuracy of the traditional nativity scene. For how could anyone in that culture deny a woman about to give birth a proper bed?

Personally, I believe that the reason Mary was denied a bed, and the reason why Herod was able to get away with murdering all the baby boys in Bethlehem, came down to the same thing. I suspect that people had become hardened by so many years of the Roman occupation of Judea that many of them had lost their humanity!

There’s only so long you can put up with living in constant tension and fear. Ultimately, it destroys your soul. You have to do something. You fight back, or you join the occupying forces and become complicit, or you get high and escape the pain in that way, or perhaps you just try to focus in on yourself and your family and keep your head down and mind your own business, and if pregnant women can’t find a bed for the night, or if somebody else had their son killed because they got on the wrong side of the king, how is that my problem?

“He came to his own people and his own people received him not”, says the Gospel-writer, John (John 1:11). That wasn’t because they were particularly bad people. They were just exhausted by generations of violent military oppression.

“Joy to the Word. The Lord has come!” That’s our hymn of joyous celebration that marks this special season. God has come into our world in a special way in this baby but, according to the Gospels, this amazing journey doesn’t begin well. It begins with inhospitality, pain and murder. Is this really something we should be celebrating?

The simple answer to that question, I think, is ‘yes’, because we are not celebrating the darkness. We are celebrating the light shining in the darkness. Yes, the darkness surrounding the Christmas message may tarnish the sheen of the Christmas baubles and, yes, we might have assumed that when God came into the world in Jesus that things would get immediately better, but that’s the Santa Claus version of Christmas.

As I say, there are a number of ways of telling the Christmas story and not all of them gel neatly with each other. The story of the plush red elf, flying around the world, distributing presents to those who already have more than they know what to do with, has never fitted in comfortably with the story of the Palestinian peasant woman unable to find somewhere to give birth, and that’s because the Santa narrative is for kids – kids who have been blessedly shielded from some of the harsher realities of life. The Gospel stories were written for the rest of us.

The Gospel Christmas narrative is for the people of Douma in Syria. It’s for the people of Iraq and Libya and Bethlehem, and for it’s for us too – perhaps especially for those of us who have become hard and cynical through years of struggle and failure and addiction and relationship breakdown. The Gospel Christmas story is a story of God coming into our world – into our world, the real world – immersed, as it is, in broken dreams, violence and pain. It’s a story of a God who doesn’t just give us a nice present and then fly off again for another twelve months, but of a God who sticks in here with us, endures all the violence with us, and ultimately leads us through to a new tomorrow.

“Rachel is weeping for her children.” (Matthew 2:18) That is indeed a part of the Christmas story, but it’s not the end of the story. The story ends in the new Jerusalem, where “God will wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)

First preached by Father Dave Smith, at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 29th of December, 2019.

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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