In December, Christians delight in lifting from the gospels the most iconic moments of the Christmas story: the angelic visits, shepherds flooded in glory light, Mary and Joseph silhouetted beside a manger. By contrast, we often glide over one particularly dark part of the narrative: the tragedy of slain baby boys in Bethlehem that follows the birth of Jesus.
The slaughter of innocent babies and toddlers is a theme we’d rather not think about — especially at Christmas time. However, loss, death, and darkness are essential parts of the nativity story and serve to underscore the broader picture of Christ’s coming to save a broken world. The darling of all holidays, celebrated with abandon by the church and retailers alike, commemorates a story that happened in the context of genocide — and this somber knowledge prepares our hearts to move beyond the manger to the cross.
By way of documentation, the biblical record offers us only a few verses in the book of Matthew. Herod begins stewing in jealous angst when the wise men first inquire about “the newborn king,” then, under a pretense of mutual interest, he hides his intent to discover and destroy the competition. After the Magi follow God’s command to go home “another way” and avoid the king, the enraged monarch reduces a population of baby boys to a disposable demographic: All male children in Bethlehem and its districts, two years old and under, are killed (Matthew 2:16).
As Herod vents his fury, Mary and Joseph have already fled to Egypt, taking the Messiah beyond his reach. For the rest of the mothers of Bethlehem, however, no angel appeared to warn them to flee the danger of Herod’s sword.
Christian churches in the west have memorialized Herod’s paranoid panic as Holy Innocents Day (or Childermas), celebrated on December 28th, the fourth day of Christmas. In medieval England, children were awakened to the solemnity of the occasion with a morning whipping, but the Reformation effectively put a stop to that particular observance. Although in Mexico the Feast of Holy Innocents is still celebrated as a mid-winter April Fools’ Day, most followers of the liturgical calendar zip directly from Christmas to Epiphany without pause.
Nonetheless, the early darkness of winter in the Northern Hemisphere is the ideal setting in which to pause from our seasonal hoopla, enter into a moment of mourning for these lost children, and reflect on their theological significance to the larger Christmas story.
Incarnation in a Context of Genocide
Biblical theology presses us to view the stories of scripture as a single narrative arc from Genesis to Revelation, and the Slaughter of the Innocents bears witness to the truth that even Christ’s birth is tinged with bloodshed. The Incarnation is without context until it finds its meaning in a larger story of atonement and sacrifice. The Incarnation and the Cross run together in one glorious and mysterious image, reminding us that, left to ourselves, even at Christmas time, we have no ready answers for the evil in the world.
Madeleine L’Engle called Christmas “The Irrational Season” for the wildness of what we celebrate. An embodied God hunkered down to enter the silence of the womb and then died in agony as a young man, demonstrating that both the coming and the dying were acts of love, and that he’ll stop at nothing to spread redemption like a cloak over this broken world.
The story of Herod’s genocide also serves to remind us of our own mortality. This is a dying world we inhabit, and the sting of it feels sharper against the glow of Christmas tree lights and the soft music that promise to usher in “the most wonderful time of the year.” Thomas á Kempis prescribed a regular pondering of and preparation for death as a route to happiness, and Gary Thomas suggests that we present-day believers ought to join á Kempis in allowing the reality of death to act “like a filter, helping us to hold on to the essential and let go of the trivial.”
For believers, the “essential” is the eternal, and the eternal comes to us through the cross. The paradox of death leading to rebirth only appears to be a contradiction. All of Christ’s gifts are given to us through death — his death. And the unwelcome truth of Advent is that it will only be through a different death — our death — that we will finally receive the fullness of life that Jesus died to impart.
The First Christian Martyrs
The little town of Bethlehem may have been home to only a dozen baby boys under the age of two, but is it too wild to say they were the first martyrs of the Christian church? The origin of “martyr” is the Greek word for witness, and the God who wastes nothing at all offers the gift of these small lives as a witness to the warfare going on behind the scenes in the spiritual realm.
Eugene Peterson argued that “Jesus’s birth excites more than wonder; it excites evil: Herod, Judas, Pilate. Ferocious wickedness is goaded to violence by this life . . . [But] the child survives, salvation is assured. God’s rule is intact.”
The Prince of Peace came on the scene with death as both a backdrop and a foreshadowing. If we lose sight of that in our Christmas Eve eggnog toasts, we are no better — and no worse — than Jesus’ 12 hapless disciples who heard his foretelling of death with their own ears but then spent the journey jockeying for a corner office in Christ’s success story. The lesson to us is the same: God will carry out his redemptive purposes in his own way, and this has been true since the arrival of the death angel in Pharaoh’s Egyptian nursery. The atoning sacrifice, our Passover Lamb, made his offering once and for all when, in a bloody death, “He himself bore our sins in His body on the tree” (I Peter 2:24).
The gospel does not make sense out of senseless slaughter, but it does enable a faith-filled response to God’s merciful gift of life out of death and rebirth out of sacrifice. Honoring and remembering the tragedy in Bethlehem is a spiritual discipline that requires both celebration and lament. Death is robbed of its victory when the church acknowledges that even tragic events of suffering and loss can be folded into the plan of God and, therefore, welcomed into our celebration of Christmas.