Mother Rachel's tears

Christmas Eve was lovely and quiet; the bright star in the baptistery window looked beautiful against the midnight darkness. With wide-eyed wonder we listened and sang, and we are still looking for words to proclaim the good news of great joy: Christ is born in Bethlehem!

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

We heard the story, we sang the carols, and we lit our candles, little flames held high to greet the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. Downstairs, our Room in the Inn guests slept peacefully in the warm fellowship hall, tired after a long, cold day. Some of you had been busy in the kitchen cooking a big Christmas dinner for our guests, others were here to welcome and eat with them or stay overnight. Secret Santas brought wonderful gifts, and some of you got up very early on Christmas Day to cook breakfast for all who came in from the cold. Ever since the light of heaven came to earth in Jesus, you have found ways to greet and bear and share it – little flickering lights that don’t belong under a bushel basket.

Most of us spent Christmas morning at home, surrounded by the joyous rumpus of children  and a sea of gift boxes and wrapping paper. We laughed and talked, watched the Christmas movies, played and sang, ate and drank and made merry, and watched the snow fall on the first white Christmas in Nashville in 17 years. Eventually we all fell asleep, the little ones dreaming about their new toys, and the grown ups still humming the tunes that make us happy with tears in our eyes.

Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

And here we are on the day after Christmas, and Matthew yanks us back from the time of wonder into the violent reality of the time of king Herod. Matthew tells us the story of the birth of Christ, and he leaves little room for sentimentality. I like a little sentimentality. My mind always wants to act like a stern teacher, giving me this serious look about the serious state of the world and the need for unsentimental thinking and cleareyed faith, but my soul is wiser. My soul knows that a little sentimentality doesn’t hurt anyone, and it goes a long way in keeping us all from slipping into cynicism. Matthew will make sure we won’t sit too long in a warm, nostalgic tub, forgetting that Jesus wasn’t born in a little village of collectible Victorian houses.

A king is born, but there already is a king, and there is only room for one on the throne. It doesn’t get any more unsentimental than that.

The birth of Christ truly takes place in our world, and so the little town of Bethlehem lies still only until the shouts of soldiers and the cries of terrified children break the silence. The streets are dark and they are filled with the wailing and loud lamentation of mothers and fathers.

Stanley Hauerwas says,

Perhaps no event in the gospel more determinatively challenges the sentimental depiction of Christmas than the death of these children. Jesus is born into a world in which children are killed, and continue to be killed, to protect the power of tyrants (Matthew, Brazos 2006, p. 41).

Jesus is born into a world of terror and tears—our world. A world whose rulers consider a human life a small price to pay when power is at stake.

Herod the king, in his raging,
charged he has this day
his men of might, in his own sight,
all children young to slay
(Coventry Carol).

Jesus is born in Bethlehem, and Herod is frightened, and all Jerusalem with him (Matthew 2:3), and brutal violence erupts, and still the world out-Herods Herod (Robert Lowell). The kingdoms of the world resist the coming of the kingdom of heaven with everything they got, but even at their most violent, they cannot stop it.

In the gospel reading for today, the brutal clip of evil Herod and his death squads is surrounded by the quiet scenes of Joseph who has learned to listen to the angels of the Lord. Herod may take centerstage, but the little Messiah slips through on the edge of the scene, a child of refugees.

Many have asked why the Lord did not send an angel to warn the other parents of Herod’s bloody plan. Many find it impossible to trust a God who would allow the death of all these children in order to save one. If Matthew had a chance to respond, I believe he would say, “Keep reading; this isn’t the whole story yet.”

Matthew’s first readers recognized Herod; he was a familiar figure: Pharao, king of Egypt, who was building an empire on the backs of slaves and wanted to keep it that way. Afraid that the Hebrew slaves might become too numerous to control, he told their midwives to kill all Hebrew boys at birth and let only the girls live. But Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives, obeyed God rather than Pharaoh, and many boys lived, among them Moses who grew up to lead his people from the house of slavery to the land of promise. Moses had to flee, and he lived far from his people as a refugee until the Lord said to him, “Go back…, for all those who were seeking your life are dead.” Moses returned, and the liberation of God’s people began.

Jesus and his parents are refugees in Egypt, when an angel of the Lord says to Joseph, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Matthew wants us to hear these resonances between the story of Moses and God’s people and the story of Jesus. Pharao raises his head again and again, attempting to secure power with violence, but his reign will not last. The kingdom of heaven comes, and the empire of sin strikes back, but the purposes of God prevail.

The ultimate confrontation between God’s reign and the empire of sin was the cross, erected not very far from Bethlehem. Another Herod was on the throne, yet the methods of oppression hadn’t changed; Jesus died because Herod was frightened and all Jerusalem and Rome with him. Christmas and the cross belong together, and there is nothing sentimental about the cross.

Pam Fickenscher says about the massacre of the infants,

You could make a good argument that we should save this story for another day—Lent, maybe, or some late night adults-only occasion. But our songs of peace and public displays of charity have not erased the headlines of child poverty, gun violence, and even genocide. This is a brutal world.

This is indeed a brutal world, but because of Jesus we believe that the last word doesn’t belong to injustice and violence, but to love and hope.

There is another memory Matthew stirs up with his story of the massacre of the infants. Jeremiah comes to mind, and the days when the Babylonian army sacked Jerusalem and the inhabitants of Judah were sent into exile.

A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.

Rachel was the mother of Israel, one of the great matriarchs, and her tomb was on the way to Ephrath, that is, Bethlehem (Genesis 35:16-19). Rachel weeps for her children who are being persecuted, murdered, exiled, sent to concentration camps, to gas chambers, and to the cross, and she weeps inconsolably. In the book of Jeremiah, her tears are followed by a promise of God, and Matthew knows it, but he doesn’t quote those lines here. I imagine he wants us to remember the words like a faint echo and carry them with us in this brutal world.

According to Jeremiah, the Lord said to Rachel, Keep your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears; … they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future; your children shall come back to their own country (Jeremiah 31:16-17).

Nothing less will do. Herod’s actions are brutal and painful, but they are not how it will always be in God’s world – and the reversal is under way. Emmanuel is born in Bethlehem: God is with us.

Jewish mystics taught that only one place on earth would be suitable for the coronation of God’s Messiah; not a high place like Jerusalem, but that lonely place by the road, where Rachel weeps until her children return. The exile of God’s people comes to an end when the Messiah comes to lead them home.

Where shall this be? On the way to Ephrat at the crossroads, which is Rachel’s grave. To mother Rachel he will bring glad tidings. And he will comfort her. And now she will let herself be comforted. And she will rise up and kiss him (Zohar 2.7-9; see Fred Strickert, Rachel Weeping, Liturgical Press 2007, p. 32).

Nothing less will do, and Matthew knows it. He wrote his Christmas story long after Easter. He wrote his Christmas story with the bold hope that the Messiah who was crowned on Golgotha, is God with us in our suffering. He wrote his Christmas story trusting that the day had come when mother Rachel would rise up to kiss the Messiah.

We have heard the story, we have sung the carols, and we had our candles lit, little flames held high to greet the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. God has come to bring the world home.