|The 'Slaughter of the Innocents'|
After the wise men left, an angel from the Lord came to Joseph in a dream. The angel said, “Get up! Take the child with his mother and escape to Egypt. Herod wants to kill the child and will soon start looking for him. Stay in Egypt until I tell you to come back.”
Herod saw that the wise men had fooled him, and he was very angry. So he gave an order to kill all the baby boys in Bethlehem and the whole area around Bethlehem. Herod had learned from the wise men the time the baby was born. It was now two years from that time. So he said to kill all the boys who were two years old and younger. This gave full meaning to what God said through the prophet Jeremiah:
“A sound was heard in Ramah —
bitter crying and great sadness.
Rachel cries for her children,
and she cannot be comforted, because her children are gone.”
Gospel of Matthew chapter 2 verses 13, 16-18, ERV
On the third Sunday of Advent (which was this past Sunday, the 11th) a candle is lit that is traditionally called the Candle of Joy. This is done to signify the "Joy To The World" that arrived when Jesus was born. His birth was the climax of a plan to rescue humanity that God had been working since before time began. Once the King arrived, God's beleaguered children could lift their heads at long last because nothing would ever be the same again. A new relationship with God would be open, forgiveness would be offered to all, and the power of Evil would be broken once and forever. There was and is every reason to be joyful, and to this very day joy is one of the hallmarks of Jesus' followers.
But we should note that the Christmas story itself is not an unremitting song of joy. As our scripture for today tells us, the birth of the infant King, the dawning of this new age, was greeted by blood, senseless violence, and all-consuming greed. Herod the Great was not about to turn his kingdom over to any new Messiah without a fight. The fact that he discovered this one was just a baby, and then found he would have to kill dozens of other babies to strike at him did not slow the murderous old King down in the least.
A Haunting SongMatthew calls upon a haunting poem written by the Prophet Jeremiah hundreds of years before to convey the unutterable sadness of this tragedy. In the original prophecy, God himself comforts desolate Rachel and promises that she will see her lost children again.
Scholars commonly point out that this was such routine cruelty for Herod and the number of babies involved so small that the "Slaughter of the Innocents" doesn't show up in any ancient history other than Matthew. From the standpoint of history it was an unimportant, unfortunate event. But the Christian Prophet John, writing 100 years afterward, saw it differently. He tells us in the 12th chapter of The Revelation that this cruel episode was not as just another brutal massacre of peasant children by an insignificant middle eastern client King, but a hideous attack on a cosmic scale. Behind the scenes, he says, as the nation of Israel lay giving birth in the person of their most noble daughter, Evil itself -- mystically depicted as a huge red Dragon -- stood slathering before her, trying for a chance to devour her royal son. Bad as he was, it was not all Herod's idea.
The Advent season is a joyful time and we have every right to light that candle. But as members of the Christian Movement we are called upon to announce a new King and a new Kingdom that supersedes all the rest. The Great Red Dragon still roams the world trying to devour us as he tried to devour our King. Not everybody appreciates our efforts. We should always keep in mind that there are still places where one can be tortured, imprisoned, and killed simply for following Jesus of Nazareth.
Rachel still weeps for her children.
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Prayer: God of Joy, help us to remember the pain in this world and what you went through to buy us that precious gift of joy. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen