by Daniel Harrell
We’re having a little trouble finding a kid to play King Herod in the Christmas play. And I’m also sure nobody drew the King Herod card as their Advent Companion. Who’d want to spend the holidays being hunted? The good news is that he’s not in the deck. The bad news is that King Herod’s slaughter of innocent children is still part of the Christmas story according to Matthew. A horrific butchering of babies in order to satisfy a maniacal jealousy for power—what is Matthew’s problem? Why not stay focused on the Magi and lavishing Christmas presents on Jesus and get on to the lutefisk?
I preached my first King Herod sermon the Advent season after Violet was born. And now I’m preaching another on this baptism Sunday in Advent. What is my problem? Advent is the season devoted to expectation and waiting, but also darkness and gloom. As a baby girl Violet would have been spared, but still, the unimaginable nightmare of her being forcefully snatched from our arms? The congregation loved that sermon. Really put everybody in the Christmas spirit. Some of you may be wishing I’d broken my mouth. But bypassing this tragic chapter in the Christmas story because we don’t like it won’t delete it from the pages of the Bible any more than ignoring our own tragedies at Christmas makes them go away. If anything, Christmas intensifies our tragedies. We mark our sorrows with the holidays: the first Christmas since the divorce, the first Christmas without a job, the first Christmas since the diagnosis, the first Christmas since the funeral.
You can try to tinsel over your sorrow or drown it with eggnog, but decking your halls with boughs of denial only gets you so far. Perhaps this is why Catholic church and Episcopal traditions reserve December 28 as Holy Innocents, the day to remember Herod’s massacre and reorient yuletide cheer back toward harsher realities. From the Book of Common Prayer, “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. Amen.”
With apologies to Elvis, many Protestant churches host what they call “Blue Christmas” services to make space for sorrow and loss during the holidays. As Lutheran theologian Melinda Quivik reminds, “Ours is a world pervaded by sorrows. When Christmas comes in any year, refugees will still be fleeing some horror in their homelands. Powerful people will still be threatening the vulnerable. Death will continue to stalk the unsuspecting.” Unspeakable grief needs a voice.
But it needs an explanation too. Maybe one of the reasons we skip over this horrible chapter of the Christmas story is because it raises questions Christians have never been very good at answering. An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and warned him about Herod’s malicious designs: “Take the child and his mother and get out of town.” I’m grateful God gives Joseph a heads up. But what about all the other parents? Where was their angel? Better yet, why not just sick an angel on King Herod—one of those bright, blazing ferocious ones from Revelation, armed with a sword and licensed to kill? Take the King out. Smite him. Eliminate Herod now and have your peace on earth. Why does God allow Herod to commit such evil? Matthew’s answer adds insult to atrocity by blaming the word of the Lord. The gospel writer says it happened so as to fulfill “what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
“Rachel weeping for her children” is a poetic reference in Jeremiah to the brutal Babylonian takeover of ancient Israel. Rachel represents ransom captive Israel bemoaning their destruction and exile on account of own deliberate sin and lawbreaking, despite being warned by the prophets. You reap what you sow.
Character is critical for Old Testament law and the prophets, exemplified most vividly and charismatically in Moses, the law-giver prophet in whose image all prophets would be judged. As the creative spokespersons of God’s word, prophets injected the Lord’s power and spirit into Israel’s collective life for the sake of obedience. Knowing the crucial role prophets play, and with the ever desperate need for redemption, God promised through Moses as he died, “The LORD your God will raise up another prophet like Moses from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. I will put my words in his mouth, who shall speak everything that I command.” Vestiges of Moses reemerge potently in Samuel and Elijah and even King David, in Jeremiah and John the Baptist, but ultimately in Jesus, whom Moses himself affirms at the Transfiguration and whom Peter identifies post-Pentecost as the last and final prophet sent, the long promised one-like-Moses who redeems the whole world by sacrificing himself to it.
Bible scholars assert Matthew plays loose with history and loose with Scripture at Christmas to confirm Jesus as Moses 2.0. The guiding star is like the pillar of fire that guided Moses and the Israelites to safety across the Red Sea. The Magi, being Gentiles, represent Moses’ two wives, Gentiles too and undoubtedly wise women, who are the first to recognize Jesus as King of the Jews. Jesus’s trek down into Egypt as an infant and then back home again echoes Moses’s and later Israel’s journeys to and from Egypt. Herod’s edict to kill the children and Jesus’s escape is like Pharaoh’s edict to throw the male infants into the Nile with baby Moses escaping in a basket. Get the connections?
If Matthew is rearranging reality to suit his sermon—a common practice for any good preacher not trying to be a history professor—then we may have our own escape. No archaeological or ancient manuscript evidence supports Matthew’s savage report; though we do have records of the ruthless King Herod killing his own kids whom he considered a threat to his throne. Tender consciences can find solace in the possibility that the infant massacre, at least, may never have happened.
Except that these horrors do happen, even at Christmas: in Yemen, in Syria, Sandy Hook and Parkland and quietly behind so many closed doors. “‘Rachel weeping for her children’ locates the announcement of God-with-us in a believable universe because it is our own.” The actuality of salvation amidst of cruelty is both accurate and unavoidable.
It’s so tempting for preachers, and safer, to treat congregations as consumers and strive to keep everybody happy; to figure out what people want and give them that, to market grace as a quick fix commodity of comfort and joy rather than as a cross to carry on the difficult and messy paths of love and obedience. We read about Herod in Matthew and get offended by a gospel too gruesome for Christmas. Better to stick with Luke and beatific shepherds and sheep (stopping short of that section about a sword piercing Mary’s own soul). A Santa Claus gospel so benign as to be indifferent, so hopeful of a life-made-better as to miss the beauty and power of God-made-human. As the poet WH Auden so arrestingly put it, “I believe [in Jesus] because He fulfills none of my dreams, because He is in every respect the opposite of what He would be if I could have made Him in my own image.”
The gospel begins as God’s steadfast indictment against human sin and resistance, sin that adversely affects the whole earth. Abuse of power, pride and prejudice polluted the land and its persona, a contamination eradicated only by humility, repentance and sacrifice: reconciliation with God and restoration of covenant. Given humanity’s ever-desperate need for redemption, God promised “another prophet like Moses from among your own people.” Jesus is this long-expected Moses, “born to set thy people free; Israel’s strength and consolation, let us find our rest in thee.”
I learned about covenants and about Moses and the connection to Jesus in an independent study of Deuteronomy I took a couple of years back while on sabbatical at Fuller seminary. I was reminded of this independent study from a Christmas email I received last week from the husband of the brilliant Old Testament professor who taught me. Dr. Lee, Korean-born, Bolivia-raised with a Harvard-Duke education, her PhD in Old Testament from Yale and another Masters in Science from the London School of Economics, had the reputation of being harsh taskmaster-tiger mom-of a teacher, compelling her pupils, like Hebrew slaves of old, to make bricks without straw. Her husband said they were both in stitches after stumbling across the sermon I preached about Dr. Lee after I got back from Fuller.
You may remember my narrating how I entered Dr. Lee’s tome-laden sanctum and sat opposite her imposing desk. A young scholar she was, focused and uncompromisingly fierce. “Why do you want to know Deuteronomy?” she demanded. “Tell me your purpose.”
Uh, well, I haven’t ever studied Deuteronomy in depth.
“You are a preacher of God’s Word and not deeply acquainted with his law? How can you speak of New Testament grace without firm grasp of covenant and sacrifice and obedience and discipline? How is your Hebrew?”
Uh, my Hebrew?
“Yes, the Hebrew language you learn in seminary and continue to use weekly so to preach with integrity and fidelity?”
Oh, that Hebrew, well…
“How many years you preach?”
Oh, about… thirty so far…
Big disappointed head shake on her part. Long sigh. (This explains the decline of the church.) Deep breath followed by a lengthy, overflowing, impassioned and pointed summary of the second law (Deuteronomy means Second law). I feverishly tried to keep up and take notes. Dr. Lee outlined Deuteronomy as ultimately a political document, tied to an ancient near eastern anchor code of honor and shame, a culture where land had personality and power, a symbol of divine goodwill. Power had to be centralized for political reasons, but it is easily exploited, and thus God gave both kings and prophets to provide check and balance. Deuteronomy shows what true leadership looks like, what charisma as bestowed by God entails: vision with virtue; humility, service and self-abdication; relentless faith and trust in a power greater than you—traits hard to find in current political climates where disparity fuels resentment, arrogance trumps, ends justify means, and distrust and disloyalty are prices to pay to get power.
I said no, not a one, because frankly I was a little frightened—not unlike the Israelite people atop Mt. Sinai, when they heard the law in all its fiery ferocity and forthrightness and cried out for mercy. The word of God was too hot to handle or hear directly—too clear and too strong and too terrifying.
“I see we get along well,” Dr. Lee replied. “I believe you might provide premarital counseling for me and my fiancé as we are about to be married.”
Yes ma’am. I agreed. Whatever you say. And this was how I paid for my independent study and met her husband to be. They are married now and first time parents this Christmas. Their daughter is named Aviyah (Hebrew: “Yahweh is my father”—sort of like Jesus). They wrote, “We are enjoying our first expanded-family Christmas, and marriage is a blast!” Dr. Lee added, “I have every now and then thought about you and the precious set of advice you shared with us. How are you doing? Have you been reading your Deuteronomy?”
Moses demanded a covenant decision on the part of his people —whom will you marry? to whom will you be devoted? whom shall you serve?—Jesus called for the same. Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near. Lose you life if you want to find it. As all Christians know, a decision to follow Jesus is but the first, wobbly step in the long walk of faith. Grace cannot be earned, but it must be proven. You can pour ingredients into a pot and stir, but flavor happens only with time and with heat. The gospel’s intent has never been customer satisfaction but true discipleship revealed in the pleasing aroma we prove right by its taste, the heavenly delights of real love, faithful relationship and sacrifice; rare delicacies in our day of binary buffets, high calorie indignation and self-justifying junk food.
Rachel weeps for her children. She refused to be consoled. But page down a few verses in that Jeremiah and consolation comes anyway: “‘Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work,’ says the LORD. ‘Your children shall come back to their own country; there is hope for your future … The days are surely coming,’ says the LORD, ‘when I will sow Israel and Judah with people and animals. … I will make a new covenant with Israel and Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made and they broke,” declares the LORD. “This one I will write on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
No doubt Matthew had this part in mind. Turn to the end of his gospel where Jesus gathers with his disciples over his last Passover meal, another tie-in to Moses, and Jesus will label the Passover cup the blood of the new covenant. “After giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” The echoes from Jeremiah resonate. “I will be their God, and they will be my people. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
Mary escaped Herod’s rampage and the horror that befell the rest of the mothers in her town, but she would not escape their grief. A sword would pierce her soul too. Her own innocent child would die his own innocent death, also executed by political and religious authorities who could not tolerate his threat to their power. Infanticide on the one end and criminal execution by crucifixion on the other provide disturbing, violent bookends for Matthew’s gospel. As Ken Bailey observes, If good news can survive such atrocities, it can survive everything. Rachel’s weeping for her children mirrors the women weeping for Jesus at his graveside. But then angels appear with good tidings of great joy. It’s the first time we’ve seen them since Christmas: “Fear not. I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, just as he said.”