Let's keep Herod in Christmas

December 23rd, 2016
The Flight into Egypt, Nicolas Poussin 1657

Matthew 2:12-23

Twenty-seven Christmases ago I was the new pastor of a Baptist church in Indiana. I decided we would have a Christmas Eve Candlelight Communion service—the first ever. I wanted everything to be perfect. It almost was. Snow fell that afternoon. A junior in high school, Melody, played “What Child Is This” on the flute. Three generations—a grandmother, her daughter, and granddaughter—lit the Advent candles. We sang the carols “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “Away in a Manger,” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” We read the story—Mary, Joseph, the baby, and the manger. I remember thinking: This is a Hallmark card of a worship service. This is as picture-perfect a Christmas moment as any church has ever known.

That’s when Danny’s beeper went off. Danny was a member of the volunteer fire department. When his beeper sounded—as it often did— Danny ran out of the sanctuary. We had gotten used to it, but it was still disconcerting. Then we started singing “Silent Night.” As we got to “Wondrous Star, lend thy light,” Danny ran back in and shouted that church member Bob’s mother’s house was on fire. Bob’s family ran after Danny. Danny’s wife got up and left. Everyone had to choose between listening to the preacher’s sermon or slipping out one by one and going to a big fire. By the time I got Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, the crowd— and I use that term loosely—was made up of those who were waiting for a ride home and those who had fallen asleep. That’s not how Christmas Eve Candlelight Communion services are supposed to turn out. Tragedies should wait until January, because they don’t fit our ideas about Christmas.

That’s why King Herod doesn’t fit the Christmas story. The horrifying sequence of events in Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t feel like it belongs in the Christmas story. The most difficult part to cast in the Christmas pageant is King Herod. Walmart sells a variety of plastic Nativity scenes for the yard, but there are no glow-in-the-dark King Herods. No Christmas card has this verse from Matthew on the front: “A voice was heard in Ramah, / wailing and loud lamentation” (Matthew 2:18). This part of the story may not seem to fit, but we need to hear it. Like a lot of stories, we have to hear the whole story or we get the story wrong.

Every true story admits that even in the midst of blinking decorations and flickering candles, darkness threatens the light. Ignoring the darkness is ignoring reality. We leave King Herod out of the Christmas story because we think we’re supposed to keep the hardships of the real world away from Christmas. Matthew says that Christmas came in the days of King Herod. King Herod was like Joseph Stalin. He executed his favorite wife, his brother-in-law, and three of his sons because he thought they wanted his crown.

We usually imagine angels speaking in soft, reassuring tones. The angel in Joseph’s dream shouted: “Wake up! Hurry! Run!” They escaped to Egypt. They were far from home, but the baby was safe.

Tragically, not everyone was safe. Herod’s order was the death of every boy in Bethlehem two years old and younger. Matthew can’t find words terrifying enough to describe the horror, so he borrows words from the prophet Jeremiah: “wailing and loud lamentation, / Rachel weeping for her children; / she refused to be consoled, because they are no more” (v. 18).

The first Christmas was soldiers with swords in the streets; mothers clutching their babies, hiding in the closet, trying not to breathe too loudly, and begging their infants not to cry. There aren’t many questions more impossible to answer than, “Why couldn’t the angel have warned them too?” Even the birth of the new King didn’t stop the suffering.

It’s not surprising that we skip this part of the story. It’s easy to understand why there’s no carol in our hymnal about the slaughter of the innocents. Perhaps there should be, because we need to understand that Christmas is God’s response to our sorrows.

My second Christmas as pastor of Central Baptist Church, I got a phone call from the county hospital on December 23. The night before, an unwed teenager had given birth to a stillborn baby. The social worker wanted me to lead a graveside service the next morning. She explained that they would normally have the service a day later or at least in the afternoon, but she “didn’t want the girl to associate this experience with Christmas.” The teenager had visited our church a few times. Marilyn (not her real name) was fifteen and had been raped by her grandfather. Christmas Eve was miserable. The snow had been on the ground for more than a week. It had rained and so the snow wasn’t pretty. The temperature was in the twenties. It was threatening to rain again. Marilyn’s older sister brought her straight from the hospital. Their parents didn’t come; they blamed Marilyn for what had happened. There were six of us there: Marilyn, her sister, the funeral director, two women from our church, and me. I knew what I had been told: “We don’t want her to associate this experience with Christmas.” I kept thinking about the story that Matthew tells. Christmas is mothers crying because their children have died: “wailing and loud lamentation . . . [refusing] to be consoled, because they are no more.” If we have to stand at a graveside on Christmas Eve, we need to remember the hope that comes with Christmas.

The part of this story that we’re used to leaving out—the sadness, suffering, and death—is most important. It’s the hard part that explains why this child is a holy child.

When we remember the story, we need to remember all of the story. God comes to the worst places and the most painful circumstances to share our suffering, to care for us in the midst of tragedy. Christ has come to bear our sorrows. We have not been left alone.

This holy season is the promise that God’s joy is deeper than our sadness, that ultimately life is more powerful than death, and that the light shines even in the darkness.

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