There is a dark side to the Christmas story. My son discovered it when he was only three years old. His mother read him a paraphrase of the Christmas story from Madeleine L'Engle's book The Glorious Impossible. The book is beautifully illustrated with full-color reproductions of Giotto's paintings of the life of Christ from the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. As they read, my wife and my little boy came to a painting entitled "The Massacre of the Innocents." In it Giotto depicts King Herod's soldiers searching for the baby Jesus and putting the infants of Judea to the sword. The results of their grisly labors lie underfoot, a naked jumble at the bottom of the page. "What are those from, Mommy?" my son asked.
Told in all its gruesome detail, the Christmas story is hardly suitable for children. Matthew tells us that the wise men went back to the East another way: "When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi" (Matt. 2:16). This is the dark side of Christmas, the raw wound of the Nativity. Army boots tromp and stamp across the manger scene. While the Christ is born and rescued, the babes of Bethlehem are slaughtered and buried.
For Matthew, the tragedy brought to mind a prophecy from the Old Testament. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
"A voice is heard in Ramah,The quotation ends almost in despair. Rachel weeps while Mary rejoices. Her grief is inconsolable; she pushes away her comforters. Her children are gone, never to return, and she will weep the rest of her days.
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more." (vv. 17-18)
Who is Rachel? The biblical Rachel was the wife of Jacob (Gen. 29:28). While she was traveling from Bethel to Bethlehem she stopped near Ramah. There "Rachel began to give birth and had great difficulty." She delivered a son in anguish and named him with her dying breath: Ben-Oni, meaning "son of my trouble (Gen. 35:16-20), although Jacob renamed him Benjamin. In addition to Benjamin, Rachel's offspring among the tribes of Israel were Ephraim and Manasseh, the tribes of the north. On the southern edge of Ephraim's territory lies Bethlehem, or Ephrata. Therefore, Rachel represents every mother in Bethlehem. She died in Ephraim, just outside Bethlehem, so when Herod killed the baby boys in the vicinity of Bethlehem, it reminded Matthew of Rachel, who went weeping to her grave at Ramah.
Rachel represents every mother who has ever suffered for her children. Her story touches the heart of every mother who has had a miscarriage, lost a newborn or buried a child in the prime of youth. She stands for every mother who lies awake at night worrying for her wayward children. Why must the Rachels of the world suffer these inconsolable losses?
Jeremiah did not have all the answers to the problem of suffering, but he did know where to turn for comfort. By the grace of God, his prophecy does not end in tears, but laughter. Rachel will be comforted after all.
Matthew understood what comfort Jeremiah had to offer. When the writers of the New Testament quote from the Old Testament they do not just refer to a single verse. Usually a single verse is all they quote, but they refer to that verse in its context. The quotation is intended to call to mind an entire Old Testament passage. Therefore, when Matthew quotes Jeremiah about Rachel weeping in Ramah, he also has in mind the verses that follow:
"Restrain your voice from weepingSorrow and grief do not have the last word, either in Jeremiah or in Matthew. A mother may refuse to be comforted, but God will comfort her nonetheless. "Rachel's tears were not in vain and not forever."
and your eyes from tears,
for your work will be rewarded,"
declares the Lord.
"They will return from the land of the enemy,
So there is hope for your future,"
declares the Lord.
"Your children will return to their own land."
To understand God's comfort, one must first understand Rachel's loss. Jeremiah could hear the sound of Rachel's sobbing in Jerusalem, coming all the way from Ramah. Ramah was a transit camp for refugees. The Babylonians dragged their prisoners five miles from Jerusalem to a staging area at Ramah, where they were chained together for the long march to Babylon. It must have been a place of despair, of fathers chafing against their chains and mothers lifting their voices in lamentation. Their children, their babies, were gone! Some had starved during the siege. Others had been put to the sword during the invasion. In the confusion of battle, still others had been ripped untimely from their mother's breasts, never to be seen again.
With her children dead or lost, it was only natural for Rachel to weep. But eventually she must dry her tears. The Bible is honest about the misery of the human condition, but it never gives in to it. Even those losses that seem inconsolable can be consoled. Not in this life, perhaps, for we carry some griefs to the grave. But by quoting Jeremiah, Matthew wanted us to know that the Messiah came to bring comfort and joy, even to the Rachels of the world.
Why should Rachel be comforted? A careful study of Jeremiah 31 shows that God offers her at least ten forms of comfort: joyful worship, answered prayer, preservation from danger, the gift of repentance, forgiveness for sin, guidance for the future, a good shepherd, daily provision, ransom, and redemption. So when God tells Rachel to dry her tears he is not just saying, "There, there, it will be all right." He is promising to make things all right. The comfort God offers is real comfort, and the joy he promises is real joy. Weeping will last only for the night; then morning comes, full of song.
Matthew was honest about suffering. He did not conceal the dark side of the first Christmas. Jeremiah was equally honest, using all the different Hebrew words for grief to show that the sufferings of life are many and various. But the prophet and the evangelist both knew that those who mourn will be comforted. Matthew quoted Jeremiah so that Rachel would know God's grace in her suffering. It was his way of saying that the Messiah has come to bring all the comfort and joy Jeremiah promised. Jesus came to make our worship joyful and to answer our prayers. He came to forgive us and preserve us. He came to make us sons and daughters of God. He came to guide us and provide for us. He came to redeem us and to give his life as a ransom for our sins, just as Jeremiah promised.
We still see great suffering in the world. We still suffer ourselves. There may even be times when we refuse to be comforted. But God has comfort for us. The day will come when all will be made right with the world, when suffering will come to an end, and when even Rachel will dry her tears.
Philip G. Ryken is pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania).
Issue: "Peace on Earth" Nov./Dec. 2004 Vol. 13 No. 6 Page number(s): 36-38
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