December 26, 2010 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: ‘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.’”
Infanticide and rushed travel in the night don’t usually enter our minds during this time of year. And yet, on this Sunday after Christmas, we are presented with this episode from the life of the Christ Child. In fact, this is one of only four episodes of the Christ Child’s life that is recorded in the Scriptures. Beyond His birth, we hear about Jesus’ circumcision, His presentation in the Temple as an infant, the visit of the Magi and the subsequent flight to Egypt, and His visit to the Temple as a 12-year-old. That’s all the Gospels record.
As mentioned before, this incident in Christ’s life doesn’t seem to mesh with our idea of Christmastide. But even if our minds don’t usually consider it, Christmas is a time of tragedy. We can think about all the various ways that tragedy and sorrow enter our holiday celebrations, these times of joy. Empty places at the dinner table are seen as loved ones have died. The talk of joyful family celebrations and reunions are times of depression and sorrow for those with broken homes. The dancing nutcracker in uniform doesn’t bring servicemen home. Countless holiday duets won’t bring fulfillment to unrequited love. Santa’s bag of gifts doesn’t have enough for all who suffer want and poverty.
It’s interesting to note how our modern celebrations of Christmas seem to avoid any mention of tragedy. Perhaps we have sanitized it too much, fallen victim to Hallmark. And yet, centuries ago, those who celebrated the birth of the Christ Child did not pass over the heartbreak that St. Matthew records in his Gospel account.
For those of you who may have collections or recordings of Christmas Carols—the real ones, not the Jingle Bells or Silver Bells or White Christmas—you may have come across a song that captures this incident from Christ’s life. It’s especially true if you have recordings from British choirs. Many of these collections will include something called “The Coventry Carol.” It’s a song at least as old as the 16th Century from the West Midlands of England. Though no one knows exactly who wrote it, the carol was sung during a “mystery play,” an enactment of Bible stories that took place in city squares.
One play that happened in Coventry depicted the Christmas story from St. Matthew’s Gospel. And it included this Christmas Carol:
Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.
O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we do sing
By, by, lully, lullay.
Herod the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.
That woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
And ever mourn and say,
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.
The carol has a very haunting tune, as it is sung in the fashion of a lullaby. But it is a lullaby sung by the character of mother in Bethlehem, a mother who knows that her infant boy is doomed. King Herod’s soldiers will find him, no matter how much she sings and tries to keep her child quiet and hidden. She will weep, just as the prophet Jeremiah said would happen. Tragedy is part and parcel of this song: there is no sugar-coating or concealing the event. And for people in 16th Century Coventry, this aspect of the Christmas story was well known.
It isn’t known how many infant boys died in Bethlehem and the vicinity. We could guess, and the number would be likely less than 50, probably closer to 20. Certainly, it is much less than the slaughter of children that takes place in our nation and most of the world. Herod wants to keep his throne, so he does whatever he deems necessary. Many of our own countrymen and women want to keep their lifestyle, so they will take whatever steps to do so. And in each case, the death of children takes place.
But we should not be surprised at that. In fact, the message that we heard on Christmas Day should make us expect it to happen. For the birth of Christ is a time of conflict and strife. It is even true in modern-day Bethlehem, as we have seen in recent years. Those who were in church yesterday morning on Christmas Day, they heard the first eighteen verses of St. John’s Gospel were read. And it included the interesting sentences: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him.”
The Gospel writer records for us that the entry of the Christ into the world—that “true light which enlightens everyone”—was not a very successful thing. Not everyone received the light. Not everyone benefited from it. In fact, there was an outright rejection of the Promised Christ, especially from the Jewish people who had received the divine promises for centuries. The event that St. Matthew described for us today made it clear that even the King of the Jews was so opposed to the Christ, that Herod sought His death. Herod wanted nothing to do with Jesus, and as an agent of Satan worked for the Christ’s demise.
We must remember that the point of the Christ Child’s birth was to bring salvation into the world, to redeem us lost and condemned creatures from sin, death, and the power of the devil. And that mission was so, even from the very beginning. The struggle between righteousness and sin, life and death, heaven and hell, the Lord and Satan, is even seen in the incident from Christ’s life that was read this morning. It truly is part of the Christmas story.
But we do see a victorious Christ appear. That is what St. John’s gospel heard on Christmas Day also told us: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Christ’s mission was not thwarted by Herod’s murderous plot. Jesus would not fall victim to the infanticide of Bethlehem, the Massacre of the Innocents. For this is the same Jesus who says: “For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of My own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from My Father.” The Christ’s mission would require His own death to achieve it. But His sacrifice would be just that, not a death caused by someone else’s plot for greatness. Jesus will lay it down by His own volition, not have it taken from Him by someone who desires to prevent salvation from taking place.
Despite the tragedy that surrounded the Christ’s birth, we see that something greater, something of good will happen. St. Matthew ensures that we see that, even in the midst of all the deaths of Bethlehem’s baby boys: “Now when [the wise men] had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Rise, take the Child and His mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the Child, to destroy Him.” And he rose and took the Child and His mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod.” The Christ Child is delivered from death at this time, so that He may lay down His life for all of us when the fullness of time came.
There is an exodus in this Gospel account, a story of deliverance. Jesus goes to Egypt and returns to Israel. The Author of Life is spared, so that He can provide everlasting life to us. He will have the opportunity to do so. The divine plan will be carried out. It has been promised, set in stone by the Lord Himself. What the Lord decides and promises to do, that He fulfills. No human or worldly or Satanic plot will prevent it from being achieved. His will is done on earth, as it is in heaven.
In that, we can put our confidence, especially during this Christmastide. No matter what tragedies we may face in our lives, we know that what has been divinely promised will come to fruition. There will be deliverance for all who are the Lord’s people. Salvation has been achieved and is being doled out by that Christ who escaped death in childhood, but who became a sacrifice on Calvary for us. This we can even see in the midst of the infanticide of Bethlehem. The story of our redemption continues on, not even being thwarted by the greatest opposition that sin, death, and Satan can conjure up.
That is where all of us can find our joy in this holiday season, even if the days of December brought sorrow to our hearts and minds. We do not look at the externals or the peripherals for our confidence and bliss. All the great decorations and events have already come down or will be ended shortly. They are transitory. But what the Lord has achieved for us is eternal and everlasting, not choked out by the horrible power of this world.
So we may see the action of the Lord done for us, even in the midst of tragedy and sorrow. And like we heard from the prophet Isaiah this morning, we can say at this Christmastide and forever: “I will recount the steadfast love of the Lord, the praises of the Lord, according to all that the Lord has granted us, and the great goodness to the house of Israel that He has granted them according to His compassion, according to the abundance of His steadfast love. . . . And He became their Savior.” It is the favor and steadfast love that the Babe of Bethlehem provides, that even Herod cannot stop.
T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.