Listen To Article
In 1989, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court handed down its now-infamous “Reindeer Ruling.” Controversy erupted in a municipality in the hilly western side of the Keystone State when a Christian nativity scene was displayed on public property. Feelings were hurt, papers were filed, and the predictable culture wars ensued. Eventually, the state Supreme Court ruled that a creche could be displayed on city property, provided that the figures of the Christian nativity be accompanied by other holiday characters — Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, Mr & Mrs Claus.
The “Reindeer Ruling” is a picture to me of how highly sentimentalized the Christmas story has become for the average Western person in the 21st century. For many, it can be hard to see why Jesus of Nazareth ought to be taken any more seriously than Frosty the Snowman.
In his Dispatches from the Front, Duke professor Stanley Hauerwas claims that “Sentimentality, not atheism, is the deepest enemy of the Christian faith”–and it’s hard to argue with him in the month of December.
Four days into Christmastide celebration, the Christian Church commemorates the “Feast of the Holy Innocents”– a day set aside to remember the massacre of Bethlehem children recorded in Matthew 2. And it’s this dark side of the Christian story, paradoxically, that safeguards the Christmas Gospel from the corroding tarnish of warm-cocoa American sugarcoating.
Jesus arrived in the world, two millennia ago, “in the days of King Herod” (Luke 1.5). The Roman ruler Herod the Great was a complex figure: racially Arabic, religiously Jewish, culturally Greek, and politically Roman. He built his seven-story palace-fortress, “the Herodian”, to tower over the town of Bethlehem, after re-conquering the area, following a conflict in which his father was poisoned and his mother committed suicide.
Herod was wealthy, industrious, and brutal. Even by Roman standards, Herod was renowned for his brutality. Over the course of his rule, he killed not only his enemies and his subjects, but his own family–his wife, his mother-in-law, his uncle, and three of his sons.
So it’s not hard to imagine that, when visiting scholars pull into town with news of a new king’s birth, Herod’s blood runs cold. This mystery-child is a threat. After the Magi are divinely warned of Herod’s bloodthirsty intentions, they take the long way back home to escape his ire.
An angel warns Joseph of the homicidal hunt afoot for his son, so the Holy Family flees to Egypt as refugees, on the run for their lives. Herod boils into a bloodthirsty rage. Pragmatic and pitiless, he attempts to neutralize the threat to his throne by massacring all the children in the Bethlehem area under two years old.
The Tears of All the Years
This blood-soaked episode in the Christmas saga is unfamiliar to those who know it only in its sanitized, commercialized form. You won’t hear Linus retell the awful events of Matthew 2 in an animated holiday special any time soon. So why does Matthew include it?
The biblical scholar Kenneth E. Bailey wondered at this same question:
When love and hate reach a certain intensity they both demand incarnation. The Christmas stories have two incarnations; one of hate and one of love…And why did Matthew think it important to record this unspeakably brutal act? Was it because love had an inexpressible incarnation at the same time and in the same place? The incarnation of hate was not the last, nor was it the most powerful word. Within that world of hate there was an incarnation of love in the birth of a vulnerable child who quickly became a refugee…
After relating the awful events of the Bethlehem massacre, Matthew pauses to tell us that this dark moment “fulfills” the words of the prophet Jeremiah, depicting the inconsolable tears of the matriarch Rachel (Jeremiah. 31.15). It’s not only “the hopes and fears of all the years” that the child Jesus fulfills, as O Little Town of Bethlehem carols–he fulfills the tears of all the years, too.
Matthew wants us to see that it is to Herod’s world that God comes. The Christmas Gospel is good news addressed to those living under the shadow of Herods old and new. God comes to us, not in some saccharine Kinkade scene, but our world–a planet soaked in blood, stained with tears, choking on violence and disease.
In Jesus, God becomes an impoverished refugee, and eventually, a criminal executed like vermin. And this begins in Bethlehem. John Calvin, in a sermon about the massacre in Bethlehem, says that “Christ, having just been born, begins to be crucified for us, both in himself and in his members.”
As we nurse our holiday hangovers of schmaltz and holly-jollies, while also living in a planet plagued by atrocity, genocide, hunger, gun violence, and more, here is the Gospel for Holy Innocents Day: the hopes, and fears, and the tears, of all the years, are met in the newborn Christ.
We remember today, O God,
the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem
by King Herod.
Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy
all innocent victims;
and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants
and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever, Amen.