The story of King Herod killing the baby boys in Bethlehem in his unsuccessful attempt to destroy the newborn King of the Jews might be in the same chapter as the Christmas story in Matthew’s Gospel, but it is rarely told at Christmastime. I’m pretty sure I’ve never sung about it in a Christmas carol nor received a Christmas card with a reference to it. Yet, try as we might to ignore it, there it is told together with the story of the magi (a.k.a. the wise men or “We Three Kings” of whom we like to sing).
Why is such a ghastly story included in the Bible, let alone in our beloved Christmas story? Well, if nothing else, this tragedy illustrates how badly our world needed (and needs) a Messiah. In the pain surrounding death, we need someone to bring life. In the face of arrogance, we need someone to model humility. In the destruction wrought by violence, we need someone to restore peace.
Interestingly, Matthew does not immediately explain why the tragedy in Bethlehem happens. Instead, he provides a lament, quoting the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning…” Hearing this cry of pain suggests to me that it’s ok to cry at Christmastime.
It’s not a holly, jolly Christmas for everyone. For some, there’s an empty chair at the table. For others, the battle with depression clouds even the happiest days. In some homes there’s no holiday from the spiteful fighting or cold hostilities between family members or roommates. Countless 20- and 30-somethings dread being asked in yet another social gathering why they aren’t married or don’t have children as though there’s something wrong with them. Around the world, people live in fear even at Christmastime because of corrupt tyrants, food scarcity, or gang warfare. For all of these kinds of people (yourself included perhaps), the Christmas story includes a paragraph with tears. The tragedy in Matthew’s Christmas story gives us permission to tell the truth about the hurt in our lives and in the world. The tragedy in the Christmas story also gives us permission to lament (like Matthew) the pain in our lives and in the world. And in that we begin to find some comfort, healing, and maybe even joy.
I like how John Witvliet, a professor a Calvin College, puts it: “There is no grace in Herod’s heinous act. But there is grace in Matthew’s truth-telling. Matthew is telling us there is no reason why we should avoid the whole story. We tell it as a candid account of what Jesus came to resolve. We tell it to testify that even this terror cannot ultimately thwart God’s purposes.” May God give you grace this Christmas season to both acknowledge the pain in your life and in the world as well as press on to receive the Good News that Jesus’ arrival at Christmas changes everything, making things new and whole while he lovingly holds on tight to you even in – or perhaps especially in – your pain.