Christmas Comfort in the Midst of Death
Commemoration of the Holy Innocents
December 28, 2014
Christmas is a joyous, happy holiday. At this time of year we celebrate the “good news of great joy,” that to us is born a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Typically, throughout the Christmas season we use the color white on our paraments symbolizing the joy and holiness of the season. But today, we use red, the color of blood. On this, the fourth day of Christmas, we don’t hear of four calling birds, but rather of the brutal slaughter of children and of weeping mothers.
The background is familiar enough. After Jesus is born in Bethlehem, during the days of King Herod, magi from the east come to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” Now Herod is a devious ruler. He wants the magi to lead him right to the little king. He finds out from the prophecies that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, but he wants to know the exact location and the exact child. So he sends them to Bethlehem on the pretense that he wants them to report back to him so he too can go and worship.
Of course it’s a lie. Herod doesn’t want to worship the newborn king, he wants to wipe him out! But the magi are warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, who still doesn’t know which of the baby boys in Bethlehem is the one to eliminate. So just to make sure he gets the right one, Herod orders the death of all of them, probably around 15-20 baby boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity, up to two years old.
Herod the Great was a paranoid, brutal, murderous ruler, insanely jealous and protective of his power. He had murdered before, other rivals to his throne, and probably even members of his own family. If he is willing to kill them, what is it to kill some babies?
So, the soldiers are dispatched. The dirty deed is done. This is a crime so unspeakable and heinous, the details are hard to contemplate, much less to describe. What kind of a monster could do such a thing? Try to imagine the sorrow of those mothers in Bethlehem: “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.”
Is there any comfort for these mothers of Bethlehem as they hold their dead children in their arms? Is there ever any comfort for a mother mourning the death of a child? Is there any comfort for people suffering from tragedy and loss? Is there comfort for you, when you lose a loved one or are losing one? Is there any comfort for you, when you come face to face with your own mortality? Yes, there is comfort for them and for you! There is hope for your future, declares the Lord. This isn’t just some fluffy words you say at a funeral when you don’t know what else to say. This is the word of the Lord: there is hope and comfort and peace in the baby that got away.
Joseph is warned in a dream to take Mary and baby Jesus and flee the country. The little Messiah is safely on his way to Egypt. God is not going to have the infant Savior cut down before He can get started.
You know, God had done this sort of thing once before, rescuing an infant savior. Many centuries earlier there was another evil ruler who wanted to kill a bunch of Israelite baby boys. But the Lord rescued the infant Moses, so that years later he would lead God’s people out of slavery and into the promised land.
So it is that Moses foreshadowed and pointed to Jesus. Jesus is taken to Egypt to reenact, to relive, the life of Israel. But this time He does it right and perfect. Moses led the people of Israel out of bondage in Egypt. Now, Jesus leads people of all nations out of bondage to sin and death and the power of the devil. That’s why baby Jesus needed to flee from Herod and escape to Egypt.
Around 30 years after God calls His Son out of Egypt, He stands before another Herod--Herod the Great’s son, Herod Antipas--and before a governor named Pontius Pilate, and at that time and in that place, Jesus would flee away from death, but kill it. His death at the hands of evil men would redeem us from the power of death and deliver us from all evil. So the Christ of Christmas had to live, in order that the Christ of Calvary could die.
Thus the connection between the joy of Christmas and the somber tragedy of the Holy Innocents. The baby boys of Bethlehem shared in the hope of Israel, the promised Messiah, who would deliver God’s people from sin and death. As do we, and all, who hold this faith in Christ. Christmas is a season of joy, for sure, but not at the expense of the reality. We do not live in a fantasy world. We don’t pretend that everything is always ok or easy. The Lord speaks a word of deep comfort to those who are suffering, to those who are struggling with the unanswered, and unanswerable, questions of life--and death.
And so Christmas is not a time for artificially trying to block out unpleasant thoughts and put on a happy face. No, Christmas is to be celebrated especially in view of all the tragedy and suffering we experience in life. Because Christmas is when Christ came into the world, and that makes all the difference. For the Christ of Christmas is also the Christ of Calvary. Because of Him and through Him we have a comfort and a hope and a joy that all the Herods of this world cannot destroy.