Suffering, Evil and the Nativity
the massacre of the Innocents
by Troy Cady
“Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace to those
on whom his favor rests.”
“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.”
There are two accounts of the life of Jesus in the Bible that describe the time of his infancy. The first is found in Matthew’s Gospel and the second is found in Luke’s. Mark’s biography begins when Jesus is an adult and John’s begins with a theological interpretation of Jesus’ life.
Each of the four biographers had different reasons for writing, so they highlight different aspects of Jesus’ life. In Luke, for example, we read of Caesar Augustus who had already been propagating his own “good news” for many years by the time the angels announced to shepherds a different “good news” message about the birth of Jesus.
Augustus’ good news claimed to be the salvation of the world but to the Jewish people of Jesus’ time, and especially the poor and marginalized, it was oppressive. So, it’s significant that the angels (literally, “messengers”) give their news to a group of Jewish shepherds—a group regarded both by the Romans and their fellow Jewish citizens as “less than.”
Matthew’s account focuses on Jesus’ genesis in three stages through the figures of Joseph, Mary, Herod and a group of “Magi from the east.” The first stage tells of his birth and its basic meaning: his name will be Deliverer and he will be God-with-us.
|Photo by Kat J on Unsplash|
The second stage happens after Jesus’ birth when the Magi from the east have arrived to pay their respects to the newborn King. Herod tries to use them to get to the baby so he can put the child to death and preserve his own pre-eminence. When he discovers the Magi will not cooperate with him, he decides to kill all the infants in Bethlehem and its vicinity. In the middle of this second part, Joseph is warned in a dream to flee to Egypt with Mary and the child.
The third stage portrays the return of the holy family to Nazareth, a small town in the northern province of Galilee in Israel, once Herod has died and the danger has passed. In Matthew’s biography, the next chapter flashes ahead to where Mark begins his account (with the scene of Jesus as a full grown adult on the verge of commencing his public ministry).
The Practice of Remembrance
Yesterday (December 28th) was a day when many Christian traditions solemnly remember the slaughter of the Holy Innocents. This is somewhat surprising since the day of remembrance always occurs in the midst of the twelve days of the Christmas feasting season. Having spent four weeks of Advent in a state of longing, lamenting the darkness all around and crying out for God’s light to break forth, Christians are relieved when Christmas day comes because it means that, at long last, they can break their spiritual (and, perhaps, physical) fast with an extended time of rejoicing.
The twelve days of feasting between Christmas and January 6 (Epiphany) thus hold an important place in the annual rhythm of spiritually re-enacting the entire story of Jesus (birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension and promised coming again). This re-enactment is important because, for centuries now, it is the primary way Christians have “made disciples” of Jesus. That is to say, such a re-enactment is how Christians pass on and embody Christ from one generation to the next. More than a set of doctrines, Christianity claims to be a true, timeless and timely story around which one wraps their life and within which one’s life is wrapped. It’s a story that has happened, is happening still today and has yet to reach its complete consummation. It’s more than a history; it’s a present living orientation—an enduring reality for the Christ-follower—and a directive hope.
So, again, it is somewhat strange that, during this time of feasting, Christians would remember something so horrific as the slaughter of the Innocents. Why? Why remember such a thing during such a happy time?
Some might assert we remember it because it’s what happened; it’s part of the story of Jesus’ infancy—and, therefore, it’s part of our ongoing story. From that vantage, a closer look at the flow of Matthew’s account bears out some interesting and important perspectives concerning the gospel Christians proclaim.
How Matthew Tells the Story
Textually, the entire birth narrative in Matthew forms a chiastic literary structure, where the mass murder serves as a narrative fulcrum. Part 1 of the chiasm relates the redemptive significance of Jesus’ birth: his deliverance and immanence. Part 2 relates our response and the consequences that follow from such a response. Part 3 relates the return of the Deliverer from exile—a type of restored immanence.
Visually, we could lay the text out like so:
A- Good News
B- Bad News
A’- Good News
These three parts parallel three dreams that Joseph has.
In the first dream, the angel tells him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife: the child is God’s Son, he is to be named Deliverer, and he will be called The Nearby God.
In the second dream, the angel warns Joseph to “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt” in order to preserve the child’s life from the mass infanticide Herod is about to commit.
In the third dream, the angel tells Joseph to “take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel” now that “those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”
The Magi and Herod only appear in the middle of this narrative arc. Like Herod, the Magi are wealthy and powerful, but that is where the resemblance ends. Everything else about them serves as a contrast to Herod; thus, Matthew uses this part of the story to establish the Magi as a literary foil for Herod. Herod has been in the midst of Jesus’ arrival all along, but the Magi have come from far away. Herod has missed the clues about the origin of the Messiah, but the Magi are wise. The Magi come bearing gifts for the child to honor him, but Herod wants to put the child to death—he seeks only his own glorification.
What’s more, the scene with the Magi parallels what Joseph experiences, thus tying the Magi to the redemptive thread that runs through the entire story. All told, there are five dreams, four of which are dreams of Joseph. Notice in the diagram below that the dream of the Magi occurs in the verse immediately preceding the second dream of Joseph. The dreams build, then resolve.
Structurally, the entire pericope looks like this:
Part 1 focus: the holy family
J’s dream to wed Mary
Name the child “Deliverer”
He will save us from sin
He will be God-with-us
Part 2 focus: Magi and Herod, honor and attack
Part 2a: Magi guided by the star to Jerusalem
Part 2b: Magi meet with Herod
Part 2c: Magi follow the star to Bethlehem
Part 2d: Magi present gifts to the child
Part 2e: Magi dream not to return to Herod
Part 2f: J’s dream to flee to Egypt
Part 2g: Herod kills the innocent children
Part 3 focus: the holy family
J’s dream; family returns to Israel
J’s dream; family settles in Galilee
It is significant that the presentation of gifts by the Magi (gifts most people still recall today) occurs right before the Magi and Joseph flee from Herod. Scholars often note the significance of gold, frankincense and myrrh as it pertains to Jesus: 1) gold for a king, 2) frankincense for a priest and 3) myrrh as an embalming agent when preparing a body for burial.
But what is interesting is that the placement of these gifts at this point in the narrative suggests that the gifts also apply to the tragedy that immediately follows in the story. All three gifts, like the Magi, serve as a foil to Herod’s action. The gold would help them move and settle in Egypt. The frankincense represents the prayers that rise to the ears of God—in this case, the “voice” that is heard: “Rachel weeping for her children.” Finally, the myrrh is for all the children whom the Child held close to his heart when he gave up his own life for them. He chased after them all the way to the grave, to share with them everything he has.
The slaughter of the innocents is far from an inconvenient diversion when considering what kind of gospel Christians are called to embody and proclaim. Indeed, in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, the tragedy occurs right at the heart of the story. Everything leads up to it and Jesus’ homecoming after it serves as a narrative resolution.
Remembrance of the atrocity is important because it tells us that Jesus came right into the heart of the darkest places of our world. Though Luke proclaims “peace on earth,” Matthew portrays the need for peace through showing us the horrors we’re capable of committing. Matthew describes in vivid detail what Luke only hints at by referencing Caesar Augustus. Matthew tells us that Herod, placed into power by Augustus, showed us the true nature of Augustus—but Jesus (the Deliverer, God-at-hand) shows us the true nature of God.
Matthew’s account presents no placid picture of redemption. On the contrary, he raises a theological problem that stretches faith to the breaking point: the good news contains the mystery of suffering—and this mystery unsettles us, causes us to doubt. Namely, we struggle to understand why the Father would deliver the Deliverer from the massacre, but not the other children. Surely, if God could speak to Joseph in a dream, he could have spoken to all the other families, too.
“Why, God?” we ask—and in the asking, we begin to understand why the mothers (represented by Rachel in the text) weep ceaselessly, “refusing to be comforted.”
I suppose the comfort takes some time to begin to settle in and this is alluded to by the fact that Jesus is no longer an infant when the holy family returns from Egypt. Still, he refuses to lay hold of comfort. We see this both in his exile and in the scenes that immediately follow (in which Jesus is baptized to face the trial of the desert).
Though Jesus was delivered earlier, what makes him the Deliverer for others is his refusal to be “delivered” so easily. He faces what we face head-on. He knows hunger and thirst. He knows the desire for power (like Herod). He knows evil first-hand. And this is comforting to us, in the end, because it means he is not exempt from the kind of suffering perpetrated by Herod. He joined us in it; he chose it. Thus, he can, as Matthew records, “save us from our sins” and the effects of our sins.
The Christian who would “remember” the story classically (by participation) is thus someone who sees the suffering of the world and enters into it because of love. The Christian who primarily thinks of their faith as a separation from the world would do well to reconsider it more as an expression of solidarity with the world. While it is true that such a faith is risky and can even put one’s life in danger, we can trust there is a Deliverer who has been delivered to us and for us. Having been delivered, it is this same Deliverer who calls us to join him in delivering the oppressed, threatened and helpless--to put our lives on the line because of love. My prayer after reflecting on this text is that we would keep the true spirit of Christmas, though it is far from easy to do so.