Summary: Why does Matthew add the story of the slaughter of the baby boys in Bethlehem. First becasue it is fact and second to trigger assocaiations between Jesus birth and Moses birth (see details in sermon)
I came across this excerpt from a sermon from the Early Church Father St. Quod-vult-deus (Sermo 2 de Symbolo: PL 40, 655)
“A tiny child is born, who is a great king. Wise men are led to him from afar. They come to adore one who lies in a manger and yet reigns in heaven and on earth. When they tell of one who is born a king, Herod is disturbed. To save his kingdom he resolves to kill him, though if he would have faith in the child, he himself would reign in peace in this life and for ever in the life to come.
Why are you afraid, Herod, when you hear of the birth of a king? He does not come to drive you out, but to conquer the devil. But because you do not understand this you are disturbed and in a rage, and to destroy one child whom you seek, you show your cruelty in the death of so many children.
You are not restrained by the love of weeping mothers or fathers mourning the deaths of their sons, nor by the cries and sobs of the children. You destroy those who are tiny in body because fear is destroying your heart. You imagine that if you accomplish your desire you can prolong your own life, though you are seeking to kill Life himself.
Yet your throne is threatened by the source of grace, so small, yet so great, who is lying in the manger. He is using you, all unaware of it, to work out his own purposes freeing souls from captivity to the devil.
He has taken up the sons of the enemy into the ranks of God’s adopted children.
If you had been reading Matthew’s Gospel from the beginning of the first Chapter up until our Gospel reading today, you might have expected the Gospel to be all “sweetness and light”.
But in our Gospel reading today we hit the hard reality of life.
Yesterday - 28th December - was the remembrance of the slaughter of the young baby boys in Bethlehem.
It is known in the Church’s calendar as the “The Holy Innocents”
You might say: This is the dark side of Christmas.
As an Anglican priest William Mouser once said:
This passage from Matthew is probably one of the least preached passages in the Bible, and it’s not hard to see why. Amidst all the Christmas cheer, it’s a harshly jarring and horrific note to strike.
It is something of a paradox that people want to celebrate the story of Christmas at all.
But sadly it has been sanitised in our Christingle and Carol services
What we celebrate of Christmas has had all kinds of paraphernalia added.
We have added the tradition of Christmas trees and Father Christmas with his “elf helpers” bringing presents on a sledge pulled by reindeers, the chief of which is Rudolph.
And we have also added a good deal to the biblical story of the birth of Christ too
The Ox and the Ass are hard to find in Luke’s Gospel and in Matthew’s Gospel we have turned the Magi into kings.
And where does it say there were three of them. And that their names are Balthazar, Melchior and Gaspar
What Scripture does record was that there were three gifts that the Magi brought.
I wonder if we told people the real Christmas story, would it be celebrated with so much gay abandon?
After all, the story begins with a rather scandalous story about a pregnant girl who was not married (albeit this is then explained by the angel) due to have a baby.
Then the child is born in the room at the back of the house where the animals are sheltered, a despot murders a number of babies in Bethlehem and the story really finishes with the Holy Family on the run.
Some liberal Bible critics in the 19th and 20th Century suggested that Matthew made this story because there is no extra Biblical record of this event
But why should there be?
At the time of Jesus, Bethlehem was a little town of 300-1,000 inhabitants. ( http://www.redletterchristians.org/bethlehem-then-and-now/#!prettyPhoto/0/)
And from that modern theologians have reckoned that there were no more than 15-20 baby boys under the age of 2 who were slaughtered by Herod. (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07419a.htm)
So it is very unlikely that extra Biblical sources, such as Josephus who does record a lot about Herod, would have bothered with such a small loss of life compared the excesses in Herod’s reign.
So who was King Herod and what do we know about him?
Herod was known as Herod the Great and lived from 73 to 4 BC.
Herod was the second son of Antipater the Id-um-aean,
founder of the Herodian dynasty, and his wife Cypros, a princess from Petra in Nabatea (now part of Jordan).