Read Matthew 2.13-23
In our Gospel reading this morning, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that Jesus and his family escaped the wrath of Herod. The bad news is that many innocent children did not. We can not fully celebrate the good news, I think, until we deal with the bad. We can not simply overlook the tragedies of life, see only the joys. We can only see the silver lining if we look closely at the clouds.
In the book of Matthew, it is a very short step, less than a full chapter, from the joyous birth of the child, born king-Jesus, to the tragic slaughter of innocent children, by order of Herod. It is jarring to move so quickly from the sounds of celebration around the Bethlehem stable to the wailing and loud lamentation in and around Bethlehem.
Jesus escapes to Egypt, thanks to Joseph who saw an angel in a dream who said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt.” Joseph listens to his dreams, as we’ve discovered in Matthew, from the time he learns that Mary’s child is from God. God speaks to him through these angels who communicate in his dreams. Thank God, Joseph listens and responds. We can celebrate with them and all of creation that Jesus is able to escape this destruction, that he is able to grow to adulthood and, through his life, death and resurrection, become a Savior for all.
Still, we can not ignore this tragic episode that Matthew records. Immediately following this divinely miraculous birth, there is this wicked, senselessly violent human act. Herod, infuriated that his plan to find and kill the Christ child did not work, issues a blanket order to kill all children two and under, trusting that this would eliminate all possibility of the Messiah reaching maturity.
As Matthew records this tragic episode of innocent lives lost, he refers back to a prophesy of Jeremiah, which you can find in Jeremiah 31.15. “A voice is heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
The parents of those innocent children would not take comfort even if they knew that this special child, Jesus, had escaped. Their grief is too great, their sorrow too intense. Even if you tried to explain it, they wouldn’t hear you. They couldn’t. Their loss is too deep.
This difficult passage brings two things to my mind that I have struggled with, issues that face a lot of us, and which seem to hold no readily available solutions.
It is true that God has a special plan for us all and it is our firm hope and belief that God ultimately works for good for those that trust and believe, that God would preserve and protect the children even beyond death, but for the moment there is no consolation for these parents who have lost a child, only weeping and wailing, tears and pain.
Human tragedy can take many forms, from the senseless killing of innocent children for political purposes, to the desperate decision to abort a child for whom the parents see no redeemable future. No easy answer can wipe away the tears or pain of parents who lose a child, no matter what the circumstances. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor, once wrote, “Nothing can make up for the absence of someone we love, and it would be wrong to try to find a substitute.”
No matter how well-meaning, it is wrong to assume we can console someone who is grieving by getting them to forget and move on. As someone once wrote, “Sadness needs it own time to be.” And we provide support by allowing sadness to be, and not trying to replace it with something else.
The final note of this story is not tragic, but hopeful. There is escape from death. The child who escapes thanks to a father who listens to his dreams is none other than the one sent by God to save the people. While this would be no immediate consolation for the grieving parents, it is ultimately a victory of life over death. This Jesus, who escapes death as a child, endures death as an adult only to overcome it, through the power of God in the resurrection. In Christ, death, rather than being a meaningless end becomes instead a passage, painful for those who go through it and for those left behind, but ultimately a passage into the fullness of life and joy.
Thanks to God, the Herods of the world are stripped of their power. All that endures is the powerful love of Jesus Christ. Thanks to God, our lives are worth living because, in Christ, God has found us worth loving.