Today, even in secular America, one of the most iconic images of Christmas is still the nativity scene. As a kid, I can remember the houses on our street lined with different biblical characters. I can even remember my parents taking me to see a live nativity, or watching Kevin in Home Alone hide in the nativity decorations outside the church. However, oddly enough, as many times as I’ve driven by Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and the angels and the wise men and the animals, I don’t recall ever seeing a miniature Herod lurking outside the barn ordering his servants to slaughter all the male children in Bethlehem two years and younger. (Matt. 2:16) That never makes it into our Christmas festivities. And you can understand why.
By the grace of God, Herod was late to the nativity scene. But that doesn’t mean churches should skip over the mass infanticide in Matthew 2 like a modern publisher would edit out the language from Huckleberry Finn. Not only did this unspeakable evil actually occur, the Holy Spirit recorded it for a very important reason. Just as God preserved the infant Moses in the midst of Pharaoh’s genocide of the Hebrew people, so He also protected His New Moses from Herod’s massacre of innocents. (Exod. 1:22-2:10) Time and time again, the Lord delivers His deliverers. Even in the darkest hour, He is the God of salvation. And that’s reason to celebrate.
Still, if I were a mother or father in the Bethlehem area that Christmas, I’m not sure I’d be rejoicing “exceedingly with great joy” like the wise men. (Matt. 2:10) I’m not sure I’d be singing “peace on earth” with the heavenly host. (Luke 2:14) In fact, I’d be utterly devastated. Confused. Angry. Understandably, I’d probably be asking, “Jesus who?” Too seldom do we consider these parents when reading our classic Christmas stories. But if we did, it would force us to look beyond the manger in a way that all of us probably should. We’d start to sing our Christmas carols and read our Christmas stories with a bit more desperation and need than we had before. The fact that the Magi walked hundreds if not thousands of miles to give their treasures is nothing short of incredible. (Matt 2:1) But let us not forget the parents just down the street who had their most precious treasures stolen. This is the dark side of Christmas, and Matthew uses the prophet Jeremiah to describe their sadness and inconsolable grief:
“A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Jeremiah 31:15)
So how do we comfort these mothers? How do we assuage the raw pain that Christmas uniquely brings for so many people even today who’ve lost loved ones? What do we say to the countless parents who’ve lost their children or even to the millions of women in America who live with the guilt of having succumbed to the spirit of Herod when they gave up their children to be aborted? Christmas is for such as these, however, their souls will never find healing unless we allow them to grieve with the mothers and fathers in this oft-neglected story. Yes, Rachel weeps. But not forever. Of all the chapters in the Bible to cite, Matthew chose Jeremiah 31. The chapter about the new covenant. About hope. About returning His people from exile. About keeping His promises. About writing His law on their hearts so that He would be their God and they would be His people. And what Jeremiah says next turns their mourning to joy: In verses 16 and 17, he proclaims,
Thus says the Lord: “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work, declares the Lord, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future, declares the Lord, and your children shall come back to their own country.” (Jer. 31:16-17)
For the mourners on Christmas, and to those who hurt so badly during a season of hope, their comfort is the gift of Christmas: the child lying in the manger. Of all the babies who were slaughtered in Bethlehem in the name of hatred, there was one child who survived in the name of salvation. And this is the miracle of Christmas: in Christ, the dead don’t stay dead. Because God became a child, we can be called His children. (1 John 3:1) Even on the dark side of Christmas, the light of men still shines His goodness. And the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:4-5)