By Rachel Rim
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” -Matthew 2:16-18
This isn’t a part of the Christmas narrative that we tend to talk a lot about. It isn’t displayed at Christmas pageants or depicted on wooden nativity sets. Christmas is a time to celebrate the birth of Christ, the coming of the Savior, the mystery and beauty of God made man – why spoil such an inspiring message with something as depressing as mass genocide?
I think the question to ask ourselves is what role this story plays within the greater story of Christ’s coming. Because if we take Scripture seriously, these three verses aren’t simply a fictional scene or a literary prologue – they are the stark facts of history. The coming of God in the flesh, the source of our salvation and the foundation of our faith, precipitated the slaughter of infants. And we who know the “end” of the story, the conclusion of Jesus’ life on earth, can read these verses in Matthew with an Easter mentality, but to be faithful to the narrative, we must imagine what this must have felt like to the Jews at the time.
Can you imagine being one of the wise men or the shepherds at the stable, realizing at least even a fraction of the joyful significance of what you’re seeing, only to turn around and hear of – or, perhaps witness with your own eyes – Herod’s mass genocide? How could such ugliness follow right on the heels of such beauty? Might it not have introduced doubt right at the witnesses’ most triumphant moment of faith? If the Savior of the world has come to make things right at last, how could it lead to this?
Frederick Buechner writes that the Gospel comes in three parts: tragedy, comedy, and fairytale. The tragedy of the Gospel is the absence of God, and I think that’s what we see in these few heavy verses. The absence of God is what we must call His seeming silence in the face of unspeakable cruelty. The absence of God is what we must call the fact that something so good led to something so evil. The absence of God is not, to be sure, His literal absence, for God is and has always been present with us, but it is the word we might use to acknowledge God’s self-restraint, the painful reality of the world we live in that no Good News can fully heal on this side of Heaven.
And yet, it is precisely into this absence, this human experience of darkness and death that Christ is born into. If the events that surround the birth of our Savior are so bleak – and they truly are, when we consider not only this but the political tensions surrounding Jesus’ birth, his parents’ desperate flee to Egypt as refugees – then surely there is no reality too dark that the Gospel cannot break into with sudden, staggering light: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it,” is how another of our gospel writers puts it.
We know about the absence of God – we feel it in our strained friendships, in our parents’ broken marriage, in the violence against Muslim worshipers in New Zealand and the violence of our own, selfish hearts. We don’t need to be told about darkness; we, like Jesus, have been born into it.
And I think the paradoxical beauty of this account is that it is itself our assurance that God knows and has always known the bleak state of our lives and our hearts. When we bring to Him our pain, we are only telling Him what He already knows, showing Him what He has already experienced. The message of the Gospel is not meant for lives that feel like paradise; the message of the Gospel is meant for our messy, broken, everyday reality, the unexplainable ache that comes upon us in certain moments.
If we cannot sanitize the Christmas story of all the mess and evil it contains, we also cannot forget that the fact that the Good News came directly into such mess and evil is exactly the point. The absence of God is only one-third of the Gospel reality, because by his ministry, death, and resurrection, Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of God and defeated the powers of darkness forever – the best and truest fairytale of all.
Rachel Rim is an MDiv candidate at Princeton Theological Seminary.
[1 ] Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairytale (New York: Harper Collins, 1977).