Now after [the wise men] 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, to 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.”
Matt 2:13-18; excerpt from Matt 2:13-23, lectionary text for Dec. 29, 2019
Our Christmas tree was a drug-store purchase 28 years ago. It is small, with wire branches and stiff paper needles. We trim it with tiny lights and decorations. Once the last is placed atop the whole (an angel made of a starched doily, formerly white), we turn off the overhead and take off our eyeglasses and ooh and aah as the tree is haloed with the chrysanthemum-rayed glow that comes of uncorrected astigmatism.
I think of our silly self-delusion as I read this text. The Slaughter of the Innocents. Every three years, this is the text for the Sunday after Christmas – some years the very next day. I have been at that worship: children are invited to wear pajamas; we all sing carols, again, as if to hold the sentiment of the season that bit longer. The worship service is nice. We feel it so.
I can’t imagine reading this text at such a service. It is too horrible a contrast to Christmas — to the holy wonder of late-night candlelight, the giddy excitement of morning gifts. Yet the calendar holds both together: the remembrance of the slaughter comes just after the celebration of the birth.
The juxtaposition shocks. It should shock. Our guts should twist with the horror; our hearts be pierced with the pain – with the way violence follows so naturally from the fear that grasps at power, that refuses consolation, that lashes out in self-defeating self-protection.
There’s no depth of field to sentiment’s glow. To neglect Rachel’s wailing is to ignore the brokenness of the world, the sick of our own souls, the need that the Creator came into creation to suffer and to cure. Still there is dark; still we are being born; still we hurt and – God forgive us! – still we hurt each other. We don’t need tender sentiment; we need astringent love.
The Jeremiah text that the gospel quotes continues on past Rachel’s lamentation into promise: “keep your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears … there is hope for your future, says the LORD. Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he the child I delight in? … Therefore I am deeply moved for him; I will surely have mercy on him, says the LORD” (Jer 31:15-20).
Jesus escaped that particular slaughter. But God did not. God suffered the frightened cries of the children, the frantic cries of their parents. God suffered it then and later and still.
God was deeply moved. God is deeply moved. God will surely have mercy on us all.
Glasses on. See as clearly as I can.
I must look full at the bitterness of Rachel’s refusal to see the strength of God’s saving love.
*Devotion revised from original written in 2010