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 the many other atrocities Herod committed during his turbulent, twisted reign.

The Magi were not kings and may not have been three, but were, in any case, wise. Skilled astronomers and members of a priestly caste who may have been Zoroastrian, they were industrious, courageous, and truth-seeking pagans from present-day Iran or thereabouts.

One biblical historian suggests that they left Persia late in 3 B.C., after Jesus was born, and arrived in late 2 B.C., when Jesus was a toddler. By the time they found the child, his family was ensconced in a "house" (Matt. 2:10), and Herod calculated that the child could have been born up to two years earlier.

Herod, in the meantime, suffered from "distemper," which the historian Josephus said "greatly increased upon him after a severe manner." "His bowels were also ulcerated" and he had "a difficulty of breathing, which was very loathsome, on account of the stench of his breath." All this topped off his well-attested paranoiac ravings, which had already driven him to command that his wife (whom he dearly loved), along with his two promising sons, be executed. This man "of great barbarity towards all men equally" had been confirmed "King of the Jews" in 40 B.C. by the Roman senate. Little wonder, then, that at this decrepit stage of life he was in no mood to hear word of one "born king of the Jews."

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Were it not for a faith rooted in things unseen, we are tempted to conclude that during this savage episode in God's saving activity his "controlling hand" must have been temporarily stayed. What does one say to the mothers of those boys? Their deaths made no sense: What did they have to do with earthly thrones and messianic expectations?

Matthew calls on the ghost of Rachel, as portrayed by the prophet Jeremiah in his lament for the deported descendants of Israel, to express the grief of these mothers:

A cry of anguish is heard in Ramah—
and weeping unrestrained.
Rachel weeps for her children,
refusing to be comforted—
for her children are dead.

—Jeremiah 31:15 (NLT)

A mother weeping for her lost children is as bad as it gets in this life. It is God's chosen metaphor for the apogee of anguish. Ramah was where the Jews gathered before they were carried off to Babylon. There, Rachel's weeping gives voice to God's own lament over the loss of his children. Rachel herself died in sorrow as she gave birth to her second son, naming him Ben-Oni ("son of my trouble"); she died "on the way" (to Bethlehem), never securing a permanent home. Rachel was not comforted.

But Rachel's anguish serves also as a metaphor for mothers everywhere who face tragic circumstances related to their children. I've read about a mother in America who combed drug-infested streets in search of her wayward offspring and of mothers in Africa who risk all to redeem their kidnapped and enslaved sons. There are mothers everywhere whose tidy worlds are shattered by unexpected tragedy, as Vickilynn Haycraft's was when her three-year-old son, Benjamin, died suddenly while playing on a playground because of a genetic disorder. She wrote a poem:

How can I pray
all that's in my heart
Did You turn away?
You let my boy die
You could have healed
I never said good-bye*

Rachel's anguish was near to me, too, when my sister's two-year-old daughter fell ten feet from a window and should have escaped with a broken arm but, instead, died. I asked why Jesus would heal Jairus's daughter when her father pled for her life but didn't heal my niece. Surely her parents' pleas were no less heartfelt.

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Ivan Karamazov, who for Feodor Dostoyevsky represents the intellectual agnostic, poses a question to his spiritually sensitive brother, Alyosha: "But then, what about the children? How will we ever account for their sufferings?"

Ivan acknowledges a kind of justice for humans who have made bad choices and suffer, and even for the suffering attendant to the general rebellion of the human race: These thinking adults "have eaten from their apple of knowledge; they know about good and evil and are gods themselves. And they keep eating the apple." But, he says, "little children haven't eaten it.

"Those tears [of children who suffer] must be atoned for…. How is it possible to atone for them?" he asks. "If the suffering of little children is needed to complete the sum total of suffering required to pay for the truth, I don't want that truth, and I declare in advance that all the truth in the world is not worth the price.

"We cannot afford to pay so much for a ticket," he says. "And so I hasten to return the ticket I've been sent. … It isn't that I reject God; I am simply returning him most respectfully the ticket that would entitle me to a seat."

Perhaps if the mothers of Bethlehem understood that the birth of the Savior would cost them the lives of their sons, they might have returned their tickets, too. Had they also known of the dream that alerted Joseph to flee, they might have asked, "What harm would there have been in God sending us dreams, too?"

I am not pretending to answer that question. Even Dostoyevsky admitted that when he wrote his dialogue between Ivan and Alyosha he wasn't sure he would be able to answer Ivan's question. But that is not to say there is no hope of illumination by exploring it.

It could be argued—in a twisted way—that it might have been more "just" if Joseph and Mary's son had perished with the rest of the boys. The aching question would not have remained: Why did God save him and not all? But gospel logic asserts that in saving the One, God did save them all. In fact, the One who got away is the ticket that Ivan so cavalierly handed back to God.

Jesus had to get away in order to face the day when the angels would not intervene and when Joseph would not whisk him to Egypt; when Mary, not Rachel, wept and could not be comforted. Jesus "got away" so that he could later on "atone for" the blood of those children and their mothers' tears.

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In The Lord and His Prayer, N. T. Wright says that in "the prayer for Deliverance from Evil the dominant image … is that of the Waiting Mother." When Jesus delivered us from evil, he went, like the mothers I read about, to crime-ridden streets and bought back his loved ones from slavery. He answered Vickilynn Haycraft's question, Did you turn away? No, he went, Wright writes, "solo and unaided into the whirlpool [of evil], so that it may exhaust its force on him and let the rest of the world go free." Jesus, in the end, was the one "who was not delivered from evil."

In the verse that follows Rachel's lament, Jeremiah writes: "Do not weep any longer, for I will reward you. Your children will come back to you." God's portrait of grief—the weeping mother—is painted over with his picture of joy and resolution: children returning! The prophet Isaiah describes it:

See, I will give a signal to the godless
nations. They will carry your little sons
back to you in their arms; they will bring
your daughters on their shoulders.

—(49:22, NLT)

So Rachel will be comforted after all.

Dostoyevsky probed Ivan's question through the godly Father Zossima, who comforts a grieving mother: "Don't you know how bold these little ones are before the throne of the Lord? … Weep, but every time you do, remember that your little son is … looking down on you from where he is now, that he sees and rejoices in your tears and shows them to God.

"You will shed a mother's tears for a long time to come," he says, "but in the end your weeping will turn into quiet joy."

When we sing about Bethlehem, we can overlook the phrase that says that "hopes and fears " came together there. Christmas is not "mere good cheer," Wright says. For all the twists in the Christmas narrative, and for all its crushing contrasts, it ultimately is "when darkness breaks … with the human cry of a small baby, blinking up at his Mother in the sudden light, and seeing her face."

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