Mary rejoicing, Rachel weeping

How shall we reconcile the glorious birth of the Savior with the bloody deaths of the boys of Bethlehem?

In Honduras, where I used to live, people celebrate el dia de los inocentes ("Day of the Innocents") on December 28, "commemorating" the children who were slaughtered in Bethlehem after Jesus was born. It is much like our April Fools' day; people play practical jokes, and those who fall for them are los inocentes, which struck me as a strange way to remember this tragedy. But, intended or not, there is a shrewd logic beneath this contradiction.

The disastrous event that took place in Bethlehem when Herod ordered the slaughter of all the boys two years old and under is part of the picture of Christmas, too. But we tend to allow sleigh bells, evergreens, and shopping frenzies to push it out of view. Yet it is, in fact, in all its brutality, what Christmas is about: the Savior's "invasion" (to borrow from C. S. Lewis) and his confrontation with the forces of evil. To subsume this aspect in wafts of potpourri and roasting chestnuts misses the essence of Christmas and sets us up—like the Hondurans who fall for the practical jokes—as the innocent fools.

Matthew's narrative of Christ's birth juxtaposes noble and wretched characters in stark contrasts: stars and swords; majestic kingly visitations and twisted kingly agitation; Mary rejoicing, Rachel weeping; the children who die, and the Child who gets away. How do we reconcile the glorious birth of our Savior with the bloody death of those boys?

There is no extrabiblical documentation of Herod's heinous act. But Bethlehem was truly a "little town" (with a population of between 300 and 1,000, according to some commentators). So it is within the bounds of possibility that the deaths of a few children ("perhaps a dozen or so," according to D. A. Carson) were overshadowed by ...

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