Reflection on Matthew 2:13-23 - Slaughter of the Holy Innocents
This year for Christmas I received a new journal. It is a planning calendar; it has room for moments of gratitude at the end of the day, black space for creative doodling, lines for dreaming and planning. It is a little intimidating but I am looking forward to living into it and making it mine. This is that time of year when we flip the calendar to a new year, make a new start. I am ready for that.
This is been a tough year. Many of my friends suffered devastating loss. Working in a church, intimately connects me to the struggle of others. Our national relationship with each other has been wounded and I cannot see in the future how it will be mended. So I go to church on New Year’s Day to hear a word of hope and Matthew gives me this!
Vengeance. Weeping. Death.
The reference to ‘Rachel’s weeping’ is from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah. His work was during the time God’s people were in Babylon, exiled from Jerusalem. It was a time of war, a time of despair feeling far away from God. This section comes as God’s people return to Jerusalem. They travel back with hope for the future yet they grieve for the lives lost. Rachel, the beloved wife of Jacob, represents all the mothers who carry the grief of their children, dead because of human sin and brokenness.
Rachel’s lament is ‘Why?!’ We have also asked that question. There may be answers (medical, legal, societal) but they do not bring peace. When we sit in the doctor’s office asking “Why?”, our question isn’t necessarily “How did this happen?” Our question is “Why did this happen to me – my spouse, my child, my parent, my beloved?”
That is when we live Rachel’s weeping and lament.
That is why God chose to be with us here in our lives. We God chose to save us by going through the same human pain, loneliness, and grief. Just one week ago we celebrated Immanuel – God with us.
That powerful act has gotten over shadowed by sentimentality.
We imagine the Holy Family in the barn. A soft glow. Mary is the picture of peace. Even in the hymns we sing “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” In our effort to imagine this extraordinary gift of Jesus, we have watered down the power of it. The writer of Matthew’s gospel does not let us stay in that sentimental moment for long. Matthew reminds us that God came into a broken and sinful world.
An angel comes to Joseph to say that his family is in danger. They must leave right away. They must travel with a young child to a new land not knowing how long they will stay. Joseph and Mary have learned to trust these messengers. So they leave. Safe just over the hill.
What happens behind them in Bethlehem is heartbreaking. Harod feels so threatened by this new king, he orders all boys under the age of two to be killed. He is taking no chances. His obsession with power is more important than the lives of his people.
This feels eerily familiar to the final plague that killed all the Egyptian first born and freed the Hebrew slaves. I imagine those Egyptian women weeping and asking the same question of “why?” Their children were caught in the crossfire of human sin.
You may hear this passage quoted by activists today when human sin erupts and children are killed in our own city’s streets or around the world. We see mothers and fathers weeping and lamenting for the loss of their child. Searching for answers where there are none.
There is no explaining when tragedy happens. You know that yourself. The last thing you want someone to do is explain away your loss. You don’t want words. You want the gift of presence.
That is what God gives us at Christmas – his presence among us, his Word made flesh.
We are the descendants of the people of Yahweh. We have heard the promise of God. We are inheritors of the promise. We have been washed in the waters of baptism and been claimed by God.
We see that light safe just over the hill in Egypt. Our light. The light of Christ.
And so when we hear the weeping of Rachel – whether it is from our own mouths or the mouths of men and women around the world – we remember the peace of Christ.
We may not have answers but we do have the promise; the promise that came to us on Christmas and was fulfilled on a cross and in an empty tomb. On the cross and through the empty tomb, the power of death was destroyed. Nothing separates us from the love and grace of God.
So as this new year begins, we pause and take a breath.
We remember the power of the promise.
We start again, like we do each day, living the gift of Christ’s presence in our lives and in the world.