I detest the Christmas season—not so much for the commercialism that, after all, runs through all of modern life, but for the nauseous sentimentalism.
The story of Jesus’ birth has absolutely nothing to do with cuddly babies, exchanging gifts, or celebrating family togetherness, let alone snow, reindeer, mistletoe, and Santa Claus.
It is about imperial control, social prejudice, unwed mothers, political refugees, pagan astrologers, violence, bereavement, and murderous dictators. As such, it opens a window into our own contemporary world.
Take the Gospel of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, where horrific murders take place amid this momentous event. In Matthew 2:14, Jesus, like Israel under the first Joseph, is taken to Egypt. And Herod, like Pharaoh before him, orders the slaughter of Israelite male children (v. 16).
Jewish readers of Matthew would also have picked up parallels with some nonbiblical Jewish traditions about the birth of Moses. The narrative presents Jesus, typologically, as a new Moses but especially as the true Israel who embodies God’s vocation to be a light to the nations as God’s obedient Son, a theme that is developed in the rest of Matthew’s gospel.
Sobering paradoxes abound in these infancy narratives. The Word to whom the universe belongs has no place to lay his head, let alone count as home. The pagan Magi turn out to be servants of Israel’s God and are led to recognize the true king of Israel, while Israel’s ruler is worse than any pagan tyrant.
When cruelty reigns
Herod was king of Judea from approximately 37 to 4 B.C. He is credited as a “prodigious builder” who established sprawling fortress-palaces, the entire city of Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast, and the second temple in Jerusalem.
In Matthew’s gospel, King Herod is disturbed by news of one who has been born king of the Jews (2:2–3). Herod decides to locate the child and sends the Magi to Bethlehem to give him a report, but they receive a warning in a dream not to return to Herod (vv. 7–12). An angel also warns Joseph and Mary to flee to Egypt because Herod intends to kill their baby (v. 13). In retaliation for being outwitted, Herod orders that all boys in Bethlehem who are two years old and below be killed (v. 16).
Around 20 male infants and toddlers were killed by Herod in the Bethlehem village population of no more than 1,000, scholars estimate. Although there is no extrabiblical account further documenting this tragic event, it fits very well with what we know of Herod’s paranoid brutality from contemporary historians, such as Josephus.
Under Herod’s rule, his favorite wife and two sons were strangled on suspicion of treason. His brother-in-law met with a “drowning accident” when he became too popular. Herod also ordered that nobles be executed on the day of his death to ensure national mourning. Emperor Augustus is reported to have popularized the saying, “Better to be Herod’s pig than his son.”
Herod’s character and actions reveal that power brings its own paradoxes. The more power one acquires, the more insecure one becomes. Friends are replaced by sycophants, and the loyalty of sycophants can never be counted on. Frequent purges are necessary. Hence the superstition and paranoia that have enveloped most of the infamous tyrants in human history, right down to people such as Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un today.
A voice cries out
Matthew reads the slaughter of the innocents through the lens of one of the most distressing times in his nation’s history: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more” (Matt. 2:18).
Matthew cites Jeremiah 31:15, which speaks of Rachel mourning her children. The passage figuratively depicts the favored wife of Jacob (Israel) weeping because her descendants were being led into exile in Babylon. Ramah was the traditional site of her tomb, and the Judaeans, including Jeremiah, were assembled there to make the journey (Jer. 40:1).
Rachel, who lamented from her grave in Bethlehem during the Exile, was now weeping as another installment of her people’s tragic history unfolded.
Matthew, unlike Luke, has no account of Mary’s joyful song. He has only Rachel’s anguish. The dawn of the messianic era of salvation provokes a violent backlash, and this conflict with evil powers will continue until the Messiah’s kingdom is finally victorious.
Perhaps this is intended to also connect with the theme of exodus. Just as the first Exodus was launched by the enslaved people’s groaning, which reached the ears of God who remembered his covenant with their forefathers, so the new exodus of humanity begins with the groans of God’s people over the pain of their world.
While some Christian traditions do remember Herod’s slaughter of the children by observing the Feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28 (or December 29 for Orthodox believers), other events on the liturgical calendar, such as Epiphany (the visit of the Magi), receive greater collective attention.
Traditional Christmas sermons and carols also ignore the tears of Rachel (Matt. 2:18) in favor of the praise of Mary. But both have long been inseparable in Jewish and Christian devotion.
Lament was the ancient Israelites’ response to the silence of God in the face of rampant injustice. Since they worshiped a God who spoke and acted, they were bewildered by his apparent silence and indifference. Since they believed God was just, they were troubled by his slowness to judge wickedness.
Lament is addressed to God, unlike complaining and grumbling. In lament, paradoxically, we cling to God in faith even as we accuse him of being unjust or uncaring.
Psalm 88, the darkest of all the lament psalms, connects us to the silence of God and the darkness within which so many of us live, from depression, dementia, violence, severe illness, divorce, bereavement, disability, unemployment, and so on.
Psalm 22 was on the lips of Jesus when he hung on the cross (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). He was expressing solidarity with all who have uttered those words in human history.
When people die very young, through an act of violence, accident, or sickness, it is right to be angry. But this was normal for most of our recorded history and still is the norm in many parts of the developing world.
Alan Lewis completed his remarkable book, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday, during the last stages of terminal cancer. He wrote:
How foolish and hollow sound the protests of the healthy and the wealthy and the safe, against the unjust shortness of their lives, when heard against the cries of those who hopelessly endure the banal monotony of evil, unending cycles of poverty and famine, war, oppression and abuse, and for whom the shortening of life would be good news indeed.
The church is called to share in Jesus’ intercession for his world. This involves remembering the “groans” of God’s world in public prayers as well as public witness.
This includes the terrible suffering not only of the people of Ukraine and Myanmar but also of those in forgotten wars and political conflicts elsewhere. Climate change affects most severely the people who are least responsible for it. That is injustice.
The more we study the history of our nations or the way the current economic order works, the more we shall discover that our comfortable lifestyles are being subsidized by the world’s poor. This happens within countries as well as between countries. (Just think of how poor migrant workers in California and Texas prop up the American economy, especially in agriculture and the hotel and restaurant industries.)
To those who refuse to face the suffering of those among whom they live, the cries of lament can seem so “unspiritual,” embarrassing, and even loathsome. And many churches that suppress the biblical lament tradition in their preaching and liturgies are very much part of the status quo, so comfortable in the world and pretending that all is well. They don’t yearn for a more just world order.
If we are accustomed to thinking that we are the center of things and that God’s job is to make our lives happy and successful (“God has a wonderful plan for your life”), then tragedy will likely destroy us.
If, however, we have learned to consider the world as an arena of so much unjust suffering where innocent lives—like the 20 male children massacred in Jesus’ day—are cut short prematurely, then we will not be surprised when what is happening every day to countless others also happens to us.
We have been decentered. Our personal suffering can decenter us even more if we surrender it to God.
Sharing in God’s own protest against unjust suffering should also lead to our turning away from indulgent self-pity and the temptation to nurse feelings of resentment toward others. It should lead us to actions in the world that address the causes of unjust suffering and needless deaths.
We can create spaces in local communities for others to share their own stories of suffering that have largely been ignored, such as in the #MeToo movement or (on a larger political stage) the various Truth and Reconciliation Commissions that have been set up in countries in the aftermath of civil strife.
No easy answers
Returning to Rachel’s tears, the passage in Jeremiah that Matthew cites goes on to speak of God comforting Rachel, promising the restoration of his people because Israel is “my dear son, the child in whom I delight” (Jer. 31:16–17, 20; cf. Matt. 2:15–18). He will make a new covenant (Jer. 31:31–34).
The painful events of Jesus’ persecuted childhood were the anvil on which God would forge the emergence of a new and transformed Israel, ending their exile and ushering in a new covenant through his Son’s death and resurrection.
Why did God not warn the mothers and fathers in Bethlehem of Herod’s murderous plan, even as he did Joseph?
Such questions are unanswerable. Grief is a terribly lonely experience, but it also links us across space and time with a grieving humanity, longing for that day when God “will wipe every tear” from our eyes. “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:4).
The babies of Bethlehem will rise and flourish with us—a hope made possible by the one who was spared (but not for very long).
Until then, Rachel’s tears will always be part of the Christmas story.
Sharing her pain over the slaughter of the innocents enables us to journey with God in the darkness, with a foot in each of two worlds: the world that is groaning under the sway of idolatrous powers and the new world that has been birthed and is on its way.
Vinoth Ramachandra lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and is the author of several books, including Sarah’s Laughter: Doubt, Tears, and Christian Hope (Langham, 2020).