Christmas is beautiful. Christmas is ugly. Christmas is happy. Christmas is sad. Families rejoin, celebrate, exchange gifts. Families disintegrate into individuals without families, sad and alone. Christmas means babies all dressed in reds and whites. Christmas means babies left on doorsteps, hospital driveways, even in dumpsters. Christmas involves plenty–of food, fun, and fellowship. Christmas involves famine, disease, and nothing to feed the children. Christmas is a time of reunions, restorations, reconciliations. Christmas is a time of families fighting, fussing, feuding.
Christmas brings Bible stories of a wondrous star, a choir of angels, a sweet crèche with fresh hay and a clean baby Jesus. Christmas brings a Bible story of an insanely jealous king, a tale of noisy, swearing soldiers who kick in doors, throw mothers and grandparents to the floor or against a wall, and this Bible story does not stop there. The soldiers tear the toddlers from their parents’ grip, then slaughter the little children as if they were some kind of wild animals — all because the baby boys were born too recently and too close to Herod’s throne.
Christmas is a couple with a small infant son, slipping out of the village by moonlight, walking beside their donkey hour after hour beneath the stars, making their way toward Egypt. This baby is Jesus–the child who, in God’s plan, was born to be murdered. In dying, he will defeat death, and by his death he will give others eternal life. But just not yet. Why can we not quietly leave out the sad part? No one has to know, and surely no one will care. “Why?” you ask. Because it’s part of the story.
Unless we face the sadness, accepting the full impact of Matthew’s carefully-chosen details, this Christmas story remains incomplete. If we remain intentionally deaf to the range of cries and voices from the ancient prophet Jeremiah, we render the story misleading. Try as we might, we simply cannot ignore the black threads we see among the gold. We are not allowed to skip or omit the dark tale that Matthew includes. It’s the Christmas story we wish was not there. This story begins in Genesis, and we will start there when next we meet.
To our view of things Jacob has four wives, but he truly loves only the one. And make no mistake, the woman holding Jacob’s heart is Rachel. Always was. Never changed. To pay her dowry, Jacob works seven years for her father Laban. Then comes the big occasion. He feasts all day with the boys, receives his bride from her father, and consummates his marriage. The next morning Jacob wakes up, looks at New Wife, and recognizes–not Rachel, but older sister Leah. Jacob realizes that he has been sold a babe in a burqa, or, better still, a charmer in a chadri (Gen. 29). Tough luck. What’s done is done.
We don’t know whether Jacob is standing, sitting or lying when the true identity of the woman calling him “husband” sinks in, but we can believe that the first time Leah hears Jacob say her name she knows that her marriage is off to a rocky start. Laban-the-Crafty has cheated Jacob-the-Trickster, and has gotten away with it as well. When the dust settles, the men strike a new deal. As before, Rachel is the prize, but that waiting business is ancient history. Jacob works seven more years for his lady’s hand, but this time the period of indenture begins with a wedding. So much for Laban’s personal promises, pledges and guarantees.
Each sister brings a woman-servant with them and Jacob gains two concubines or wives-to-spare. Then starts the race for babies to build this man Jacob a tribe (Gen. 29-30), Between the four of them, wives and concubines together bear Jacob twelve sons and a daughter named Dinah. But of all the babies, only one, Joseph, belongs to Rachel, and the story’s spotlight will shift to Joseph for almost the last third of Genesis. Deep into that story, Rachel has another son, Benjamin. His descendants will include Saul, Israel’s first king, and a man named Saul from Tarsus, who will write about half of the Christian additions to the Jewish Bible. The bad news is that Rachel dies in childbirth with Benjamin and is buried near Bethlehem (Gen. 35). You can visit her purported tomb still today.
More than a thousand years after Rachel’s death, a Babylonian army snatches Jacob’s descendants of the Southern Kingdom–including the tribe of Benjamin and the villagers of Bethlehem–and hauls them by force to faraway Babylon. The deportees are processed from a village called Ramah, five miles north of Jerusalem, which provides their last scenes of the homeland–the ones they will most remember. Babies are extra trouble for the Babylonian soldiers, who dispense with them by sword or by slamming their head against a rock. Jeremiah captures the horrific scene: babies dying, mothers crying. And, when the wind is just right in Bethlehem, some of the old women swear that they hear long-dead Rachel, also, weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted. A prophet named Jeremiah makes a note from his holy imagination and writes it in his book (Jer. 31:15). But Rachel’s weeping is not over yet.
We much prefer the Hallmark card Christmas with the beautiful family around a laden table, a cozy fire crackling nearby. Outside, the snow falls softly. It is a sweet picture, just nothing like the scenes surrounding Jesus’ birth, as described by the Gospel writers who were in the best position to know. Matthew’s account begins innocently enough. Magi — “wise men,” astrologers, kings–no one knows for sure — come from the East. Is it Arabia, Persia, the Orient? Their sources, calculations, and a heavenly body they associate with a royal birth, have brought them to the land of the Jews.
The Magi ask for Herod’s help in locating the newborn king, and Herod asks them for the baby’s exact address. The wise men go home and Herod goes berserk (Matt. 2:1-12). His throne seats but one and that one is not some baby from Bethlehem. Herod is an old hand at what comes next. When competition threatens, he kills the competitor. Lacking an exact birthday for this one, he enlarges the scope of the death warrants to include all boys ages two and younger in the environs of Bethlehem (Matt. 2:16).
God warns Joseph, and he escorts Mary and Jesus to Egypt (Matt. 2:13-23). Herod’s soldiers do the dastardly deed and the maniacal monarch sleeps peacefully again. Once again, the sound of Bethlehem’s crying mothers pierces the Judean sky. As in the days of Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; and she refused to be comforted, because they were no more” (Matthew 2:17-18).
But Jeremiah’s weeping text is followed by a ray of light. “They shall return from the land of the enemy,” God told the prophet, “and there is hope for your future” (Jer. 31:16-17). The baby of Bethlehem grows into the man who becomes “a covenant to the people” of Israel and a “light to the nations” (Isa. 42:6). The baby who was temporarily spared from King Herod’s slaughter will eventually have to die. But by his death, he gives life to the babies of Bethlehem, and to all of Adam’s descendants around the world who put their trust in him.