We are now in the season of Christmas, the joyful time after the meditation and expectation of Advent. We have exuberantly celebrated Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and, unlike many homes and churches, we will continue to enjoy the trees, the carols, and the festivities. Just one day is never enough.
Yet only three days after Christmas Day, the church calendar calls for us to remember what has been called the Massacre (or Slaughter) of the Innocents. It’s a rather solemn, uncomfortable, and almost unthinkable day, especially given its proximity to Christmas Day itself, but not all joy can be completely unallayed. Yesterday was two turtle doves, tomorrow four calling birds, but today the birds have been replaced by the cries of dying children and the screams of their mothers.
Herod was the client king of Judea, under the authority of Rome. He seemed to have two hobbies, building large complexes, roads, bridges, and even the Temple, while the other was murdering anyone who, in his perception, were out to get him. Down through the ages, he was portrayed as a madman, an insane person, and even a paranoid schizophrenic. The current diagnosis is Paranoid Personality Disorder, an exaggerated distrust and suspicion of others.
He was highly distrustful of the Hasmoneans, the house of the previous rulers, whose rule Rome ended with the appointment of Herod, an Idumean, to act as king. His paranoid delusions led to many deaths of prominent Hasmoneans throughout his reign. Among his own family, he had his wife Mariamne, a Hasmonean woman he loved dearly and made his second wife, executed because he feared she was plotting against him in favor of two of their sons. He killed those two sons also, as well as another son by another wife. Even Mariamne’s mother was not exempt from the executioner.
He knew the people hated him for his cruelty, unfair taxation, and suspicions, so, knowing his death was not far away, called for prominent Jews to be “invited” to Jerusalem for a meeting, then rounded up and ordered that they be executed as soon as Herod’s own death was announced. He was determined that there should be mourning upon his death, even if the mourning was for Jews and not for the King of Judea.
When the Magi visited Jerusalem and brought news of a newborn King of the Jews, paranoia struck Herod like a sword in the gut. He planned on having the Magi identify the name and place in Bethlehem where this usurper child was living, but the Magi slipped the trap and used another route homeward. Nevertheless, Herod sent out a troop of assassins to go through every house in Bethlehem and every nearby village, find every boy baby under the age of two years, and murder them.
Matthew 2:18b quotes part of Jeremiah 31, “… A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.” Jeremiah was referring to the children of Israel, regardless of age, who were taken from Israel during the Exile. Their “death” was that they no longer lived in the land God had given them. Matthew referred to the more physical murder of little boys who just happened to fit the criteria of being male and two years old or younger, but the same emotions are evoked: grief, pain, desperation, and desolation. Luckily, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had escaped before the child could become a victim. They had become refugees heading for safety in Egypt.
We see this story played out over and over, even in this modern world. The daily newspapers and programs are full of images of children dying of famine, illness, or genocide. Unlike Jesus and his family in Egypt, refugees seeking safety for their families and children are not always welcomed into the lands in which they seek sanctuary. Images of Jewish men, women, and children being separated at extermination camps come to mind. Recently, images of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus each put into cages, separated from the others, even the helpless child, have proclaimed that there might be a bit of paranoia present in our own country. In a season dedicated to the birth of God’s own Son, sons and daughters of thousands and thousands of parents have been separated by not only barbed wire or chain link, but by those things plus miles and miles of distance. Children have died due to illness and deprivation. It is our own version of the Slaughter of the Innocents.
Think of being a parent who has no idea where their child is, whether he or she is safe, warm, fed, clothed, and loved. Think of being a parent who walked a thousand miles or more to keep their child safe from rebels, drug lords and gangs, and despotic military troops, only to arrive and have their child taken from their arms and sent who knows where? Think of the children, sitting in pens, the littlest ones in soiled clothes and diapers, crying for a mother or a father that never comes to pick them up and make them feel safe. It’s hard to think of things like that while we sit in warm homes, laughing and enjoying family and friends, lots of good food, and the enjoyment of a loving environment.
Rachel may have wept for her children, but now some of those children have created the same sort of ghettos that threatened them during the Second World War. Bombs fall on both sides of the borders, killing children as well as combatants, destroying homes, schools, synagogues, mosques, and churches. What would it take for peace to come to such an area? What would it take to bring refugees to a place of safety and belonging? Is there anything that can change this? Will there ever be anything done?
This year I can’t wait for December 28th to be over. I can’t wait for the chance to let go of the pain and sadness that the commemoration of the day brought. Whether or not it was an actual physical event in Bethlehem, it’s still symbolic of what is happening in our world today. Can we learn anything from it? Should the children pay the price for our arrogance, greed, and superiority?
God, bless the children. Comfort and keep them wherever they are and whatever their circumstances. Help those of us who could help find the way to do so quickly, before they have to suffer more than they already have. Change the hearts and minds of those who not only order such punishment on the innocents but who think it’s the best solution to whatever problem they think exists. Help us see the Herods for who they are and what they do, and give us the strength and conviction to say “ENOUGH!” as we fight the paranoia and arrogance. Please, God?
Reference: Franz, MA, Gordon. “The Slaughter of the Innocents: Historical Fact or Legendary Fiction?” The Shiloh Excavations, Associates for Biblical Research, 08 December 2009.
https://tinyurl.com/wyqd9mf Accessed 12 December 2019.
Image: Massacre of the Innocents, Léon Cogniet (1794-1880). Location: Museum of Fine Arts of Rennes. Found at Wikimedia Commons.
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. Her co-habitants, Dominic, Gandhi, and Phoebe, may often look innocent, but there’s mischief afoot somewhere.