Throughout the ages, mothers grieve. One grieving mother said to me recently: my boy went straight to God.
In our Old Testament passage it is mother Rachel who grieves for her children. In our New Testament passage it’s the mothers whose baby sons have been killed by king Herod. Neither of the passages is an historical account. Instead, both of them give a reality of life. Innocent children die. Tomorrow on December 28th that is what is remembered in the Christian year, the death of the innocent children as we have it in our New Testament reading.
King Herod feels threatened by the arrival of the new born king, of whom he is made aware of by the three wise men.
Herod thinks, ‘good to know’, and then says, ‘Come back and let me know where I can find Him so that I can worship Him’. When he realises that he has been tricked by the wise men, he finds his own way of getting rid of the new born King.
Fear and power. Put them together and you get the killing.
This Herod is clearly a twin brother of Pharaoh of Egypt. Same character. Same fear. Same power. Pharaoh too demanded that all new born baby boys were killed: thrown into the river Nile. Two powerful rulers with the same style of reigning.
While king Herod kills, the new born King is taken to the land of Egypt. He escapes the cruelty, is not going to be killed…yet.
In Luke’s Gospel, where it tells about the shepherds that went to the stable in Bethlehem, it says that Mary, ‘treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart’.
This Jewish young girl, who magnified the Lord with her song
Holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
He has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate; (Luke 1: 49-52)
Oh, she knows what her Lord had done in the past, when Israel was led out of Egypt…and now in the light of that; in the light of all that she already knew, and now had come to know, and now feels when she is holding her baby, she is pondering.
But then, the next moment she finds herself with Joseph and Jesus fleeing, to Egypt.
Israel and Egypt. In the bible they seem to have a kind of love-hate relationship.
Once, Egypt was the place where Jacob and his sons went when they had a famine in Canaan, where they lived. The bread in Egypt saved them. It did, but not for ever, for the offspring of Jacob and his sons, Israel, for them Egypt turned into hell when they were made slaves.
Meanwhile, the people of Israel grew in number.
So much, that Pharaoh was terrified that Israel would continue to grow into a strong nation and would be able to stand up against him. And so Pharaoh exercised power in his way. And that power killed.
So, here’s an Egypt that symbolizes the powers that oppress, kill, makes life hell.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Egypt is the opposite of that. The new born King is kept safe there in Egypt, until Herod’s death and Mary and Joseph and Jesus went to live in Nazareth.
Into Egypt and then out again. Why this movement? Well, the reason is given,
This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
In all the stories that we have, throughout the Bible, it’s about what God says and does. His word and deed are one, that’s why it says,
‘Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.’ (Deuteronomy 6:4)
Where it says that the shepherds rushed to Bethlehem, it doesn’t say that they went to see the Christ child. They went to see,
‘…this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” (Luke 2: 15)
What happened was that the word of God had become flesh. That word of God made them rush to Bethlehem, where they found that that word had become a baby, the Christ child.
Jesus was saved from the hand of Herod, just as Moses was saved from the hand of Pharaoh. Both were saved to save; saved for God’s purpose.
So, Joseph was told, in a dream, to flee to Egypt.
Herod does not allow for ridiculing him. None of the tyrants do; it is what they do: they mess about with people. Don’t we all know that Egyptian Pharaohs continue to exist throughout the ages? It’s just that their names change.
Jesus as a baby, is not killed, but he will be, later and he will be called: king of the Jews, words immersed in the cynicism; the contempt with which the King of the Jews is nailed to the cross.
The Massacre of the Innocents, it’s a story about Egypt, about Bethlehem, it’s a story of all times. Always again those tyrants who cause mothers to cry and weep in despair, as Rachel did, representing all the mothers of Israel, at the time that Israel were gathered in order to be deported to Babylon. Inconsolable they were, the mothers in Israel. Inconsolable they were, the mothers in Bethlehem;
Inconsolable they are, the mothers and fathers of children, teenage children and adult children, of children who have been taken away from them. Inconsolable are the children who have lost mothers and fathers.
Yet, the story of the vulnerable, poor King that was born in the stable goes hand in hand with the suffering that comes with the death of all those innocent children killed by Herod. In them the suffering of the Christ child was already foretold. They already suffered and died with Christ before He did.
The good news of Christmas is that in the midst of that suffering; because of that suffering, God came down to go through every minute of precisely that suffering Himself, in His Son. But then, after the suffering and dying, God did something again: He raised His Son from the dead. In that resurrection, suffering and death are held.
So, here we have in the Gospel of Matthew, two kings. The one with whom we are all familiar; who is loud and visible; the one who exercises power as it suits him or her; channelling them into their purposes:
That king vs the new born King.
As Christians, we don’t share a kind of general hope: the hope that all will work out, somehow, or that there is something after life. No, our hope is specific. Through Christ, God Himself is our hope, in that He is with us, throughout everything we go through.
Coming to the end of a hear in which so much pain has been suffered, so many lives have been lost and are being mourned, we have this hope. It gives us solid ground under our feet. It gives us reason to ponder in our hearts, as Mary did.
As we are about to enter a new year, be encouraged and persevere in that hope: our Lord Jesus Christ.