Religion

The Boys of Bethlehem, and Matthew’s dilemma

How do we read a story like this absent any hope of Creation’s final redemption by God through Christ?

The Boys of Bethlehem, and Matthew’s dilemma

Matteo Di Giovanni/Public Domain

This is the dark side of Christmas, the slashing swords of Herod cutting flesh, bone; the blood upon the boys of Bethlehem.

Of the events around Christ’s birth it is a lurid, horrid counterpoint. Angels singing, shepherds adoring, magi arriving, guiding beckoning star, all of it recreated in nativity scenes in church and home, pageant and even parade. But there is a shadow coming, a scene of blood, terror, and fright. This is said to be Jeremiah’s prophecy.

Twice we are told in the Gospel of Matthew that the events of Christ’s birth were accomplished because it “was done to fulfill what the Lord said through the prophet.” (Matthew 1:22; 2:15)

Yet when it comes to the slaughter of the innocents of Bethlehem, Matthew unceremoniously throws the prophet under a bus. (Matthew2:17)

The Lord no longer speaks through a prophet, not as Matthew tells it. Matthew cannot bring himself to say this prophecy was the Lord’s word, or the Lord’s doing.

When Herod’s soldiers show up swinging swords against the little boys of Bethlehem, Jeremiah is left to himself. Here he does not speak for the Lord. Here he speaks for himself only:

“Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled.

A voice is heard in Ramah,
Weeping and great lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children
And she will not be comforted,
For they are no more.”

In Jeremiah’s time, roughly five hundred years before the birth of Jesus, Ramah was the concentration camp where conquering Babylonian forces collected captive Israelites, before marching them into exile. It is in Ramah where the tomb of Rachel is said to be. She, regarded as mother of the nation, weeps from her grave.

By Jeremiah, Rachel weeps for Israel swept up and away to Babylon, ripped from the homeland. In Matthew’s Gospel, Rachel’s tears again soak into Israel’s soil, the little boys of Bethlehem ripped from their mothers. Rachel will not be consoled.

There are nearly eleven long miles stretching between Ramah and Bethlehem, but as Matthew searched for a description of Herod’s deed, eleven miles was close enough, more than enough to find poetic allusion through Jeremiah’s voice.

The birth of Christ comes in company with sword, tyranny, and grief beyond solace.

Should it be otherwise? There are swords in play aplenty around Christ. His coming, old Simeon warned Mary (Luke 2:35) would cause both the rise and the fall of many, but clearly too, he will “be a sign that will be spoken against.” And of his mother, Mary, make no mistake: there would be a sword to pierce her very soul.

God’s Word, his Christ, does not come in violence. That Word comes always as invitation, though violence may very well attend it. That’s the world where we live.

It came to Herod, God’s Word did, and just as equally to the shepherds and magi, Joseph, and all the others caught up in the divine drama. They responded to that Word. So did Herod. Herod saw threat and acted. Others saw Israel’s consolation and acted as well.

That is the way it went, and as at the beginning, so at the end: Mary wept at the cross, tears no less shattering than those of Bethlehem’s mothers.

But this is not where we are left. I cannot read a story like this absent Christology, absent any hope of Creation’s final redemption by God through Christ. He took to himself our humanity, every grimy bit of it, living amid a fallen, sin-devastated world.

And in the cold December of the Holy Innocents, in this and every year, shall we yet see that “April’s crowning glory breaks, while the whole world wonders.”

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Russell E. Saltzman

Russell E. Saltzman is a web columnist at First Things magazine and lives in Kansas City, Missouri. Before entering the Roman Catholic Church he was a Lutheran pastor. His latest book is Speaking of the Dead.  He can be reached on Twitter as @RESaltzman and by email at russell.e.saltzman@gmail.com

 
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