When we do Christmas, it is very tempting to skip the story of King Herod's murdering the children of the Bethlehem region. In a year when the innocent children of Syria, and their parents, have been made to suffer, this ommission is unconsciencable. I remember one adroit fool suggesting that we could skip Matthew 2:13-23 in our Sunday lections because the event discribed doesn't appear in the secular histories of the time and could have been made up by Matthew. The only secular histories we have from this period are pro-Roman (Josephus wants to paint the Herodians in a better light for his Roman audience) the way Putin/Trump is pro-Assad and love FOX news. Putting current political concerns asside, the real reason for preaching Matthew's slaughter of the Innocents is to counter our dangerous tendency to down play the depravity of the human heart. When we say, "No one could do such evil," we give tacid support to the rise of dictators and future holacausts.
I want to quickly list bullet points for telling Herod’s Slaughter of the Innocents and the Flight into Egypt:
- We need to remind people that grace is free, but it isn’t cheap.
- Both Matthew and Luke foreshadow the suffering of the cross. Matthew in both the spices that the wiremen carry, as well as, in the suffering of innocent children and their families. Luke has Simeon warn Mary that “a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:35)
- The people in our pews will have had a mixed holiday season. In every family there is both grief and joy. Sensitive pastoral messages recognize this.
- Mary and Joseph knew the villagers who lost children. They were in Bethlehem for some time, perhaps as long as two years. This too, foreshadows Jesus’ compassion from the cross on the thieves and family members who suffer with him.
- The flight into Egypt is a symbol of transition. We don’t get to go from the Old Testament to the New Testament without crossing a wilderness. In our personal lives, our transitions into new seasons (adulthood, marriage, retirement, death,etc.) always involves risk, loss, and travel to unfamiliar territory.
- Herod, and the political powers of our current world that sacrifice innocent lives in order to maintain their own agenda, are real evil. Jesus came into the world to confront the depths of human sin. That means challenging people, not just on a spiritual level, but also on the political and social level. Our ongoing hopes for justice, an end to children starving, and world peace, are brought to mind as we talk of this tragedy that happened in Bethlehem long ago.
- This is the way God tells His story, not with sugar plum fairies and mistletoe, but with pain and expensive love.