Summary: Protecting the "newborn child" when the Herods of this world are threatened.
This story of Mary and Joseph’s flight into Egypt with their newborn child and Herod’s slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem is a story that is not preached on very much, if at all. And for obvious reasons. Who wants to spoil the beauty and the joy of the Christmas season with a story of the brutal killing of innocent children? And yet, there it is; a part of the Christmas story. Something Matthew could not leave it out of his gospel.
This story never held much attraction for me until I saw it recreated a number of years ago on a television mini-series entitled, “Jesus of Nazareth.” The whole series, I thought, was a particularly authentic portrayal of the life of Jesus, but seeing the account of the slaughter of the innocents acted out on the screen was especially gripping and moving. The worried look on the face of Herod when he thought his rule as king would soon be over. His ordering of the massacre in a desperate attempt to secure his position. The calmness of life in a small Judean village, the rumble of hoofbeats from the approaching soldiers, the screams of mothers running for cover with their children, the soldiers spearing and stabbing infants as they carried out their orders, mothers left weeping in the streets, unable to understand why this happened, but very much aware of the grief and pain they were feeling. It was one of the scenes that stands branded upon my memory, made much more real and vivid than those few words Matthew uses to relate the event.
There is no record in the annals of secular historians that such a slaughter ever took place. But then again, such an event in so small a village as Bethlehem would not have been front-page news. Herod’s calculated cruelty, however, was a fact, and well documented. Josephus, the Jewish historian, writes in his annuls that Herod once ordered the execution of three of his own sons, out of fear that they might attempt to usurp his throne. And he also made arrangements that at his own burial, one member of every family was to be slain, so that the nation might truly mourn his passing. So such a senseless slaughter at Bethlehem would not have been out of character for someone as cruel and as crazy as Herod.
This story contains so many images, images which bring back memories of similar stories, images which mirror a dynamic played out over and over again in our everyday lives, images which call us to take very seriously the friction, the conflict between the old and the new. There is a child, newly born, vulnerable, holding the hope and the potential for something fresh, something redeeming to come into being. There is Herod, the keeper of the old order, self-centered, set in his ways, fearful of anything new that might come along and threaten his kingdom. There is the dream of Joseph, the message from the other side, the wisdom of centuries past, the warning that seeks to protect what can enliven and redirect the future. There is the flight into Egypt - the long hard journey, the loneliness, the silence, the anxiety, the strangeness, the growing in secret. And then there is the slaughter of the innocent children - the violence, the panic, the shock, the pain, the grief, the dead. But in the end, there is the return of that one child, a gift of God, who sought the safety of a foreign land. And with this child comes the possibility of something fulfilling.
There will always be conflict, confrontation, a life and death struggle between the old and the new, between that which has always been and that which wants to be, between that which has grown strong and set in its ways and that which is so fragile and easily crushed. The balance of power is so heavily weighted towards the old ways, that the new has only its yearning to be born and to grow, to keep it going. And for very child, for every idea, for every insight, for every new experience, for every new relationship, for every new step forward, there are hundreds of such children that are killed and slaughtered, never to have the chance to grow and mature. And the pain and the grief that comes when the Herods of this world have their way is great indeed, both in number and in intensity. And great is the emptiness of those who mourn.
Many years ago I went to see a theatrical production called Cotton Patch Gospel, a musical about the life of Jesus with an Appalachian, country-western twist. It was based on Clarence Jordan’s paraphrase of the New Testament, by the same name. It tries to tell the story of Jesus as if he has been born in Georgia in the 1950’s. The lyrics and music were written and composed by the late Harry Chapin. I wish I could play one of the songs for you, for it is both gripping and haunting.