Now after the wise men had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled 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.’
We are greatly blessed because we live in a society that strives to nurture and protect our young people, and all who are in need of love and care. Sadly, this agenda of care is not universal, even in the twenty-first century. It is our desire to safeguard those who are most vulnerable that makes today’s reading, the account of Herod’s slaughtering of the Holy Innocents, so very shocking. In the midst of the joyous, if highly sanitized, Christmas story we encounter a moment of sheer horror.
For all of us, the mass murder of young children is incomprehensible, but we are not living in first century Israel. We are not living in a perpetual political climate of tension and fear. We are not trying to survive in a land that is occupied by an efficient and brutal empire that has no concern other than total domination.
Of course, it was not the Romans who killed the young boys of Bethlehem. The Roman emperor had no understanding of the threat posed by Jesus; that awareness was to come much later. Rather, it was the Jewish king, Herod, who was to order this atrocity and thus fulfil the terrible prophecy of Jeremiah. Herod, renowned for his ruthlessness was the one who had already killed members of his own family, including his wife. Herod would also go on to order the killing of many as he, himself, was dying – as a way of guaranteeing that there would be weeping on the streets at the time of his death. First century Israel was a very different and very dangerous place.
So what are we to make of today’s reading? Lying behind this horrific moment early in the gospel narrative is a message of hope. Yes! Hope! The killing of the Holy Innocents was foretold by the prophet Jeremiah, and it came to pass at the time of Jesus’ birth, on the orders of the one who claimed to be the king of the Jews. Throughout the Old Testament there are many other prophecies. Those prophecies foretell the life, and resurrection of the baby born in Bethlehem: Jesus, the Christ, the Anointed One of God, the one who was born to be the true King of the Jews. We live in a violent world and, in his turn, Jesus would become a victim of that human violence. But … Jesus would also transcend that human violence and bring resurrection joy to us all. And therein lies hope for the whole of humanity.
In the fulfilment of Jeremiah’s prophecy there is, indeed, weeping and loud lamentation. There is also an early signpost pointing towards the cross. But … as we reflect on that, let us still celebrate the birth of a very special baby, and let us also cling on to the hope of the joyous re-birth that awaits us all, no matter what horrors this world may throw at us.