When Christmas Hurts: Lessons From The Massacre Of Innocents

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It is written:

Romans 12:15-Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.

Christmas is often seen as the “best time of the year,” and for many it certainly is.

However, for others, Christmas time is a season of pain and heartbreak.

One lady, Bo Stern, has written:

“I really loved my first forty-five Christmases. They certainly weren’t perfect, but they also weren’t painful. In fact, I would say that based on the purely imaginary Standard Holiday Happiness scale, although I had known highs and lows, my cumulative Christmas experience stood at a good, solid 8. I really liked holidays, and I loved making them happy for my husband and kids. It was a job I felt born to do. Then came February 2011. Just after celebrating our twenty-sixth wedding anniversary and on the day of our daughter’s sixteenth birthday, my wonderful husband, Steve, was diagnosed with ALS (more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). ALS is a disease so fierce and foul that I feared all my holidays—before and after—would be redefined by it. I imagined looking at the family picture taken when we celebrated Christmas at SeaWorld and mentally recaptioning it: one year before our world fell apart….I loved fall. And I felt ready for Christmas. I really did. But as soon as the Thanksgiving leftovers were put away and the annual after-dinner Christmas movie was playing in the family room, I knew I was in trouble. Spring had been hard—appropriately hard because it was cold and the news was fresh. Summer had brought welcome warmth. Fall was lovely and peaceful. But Christmas is supposed to be happy. I wanted to be happy—more than anything. I wanted it for my kids and my husband and my friends, but don’t let me kid you: I wanted it for me. I longed to fall in love with Christmas, but my broken heart had a mind of its own, and it didn’t seem to understand the rules of the calendar.” (Bo Stern, When Holidays Hurt: Finding Hidden Hope Amid Pain and Loss, 93-112 (Kindle Edition); Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson)

Bo’s words describe the reality of many people during the holiday season.

Let’s talk about how the Birth and Childhood of Jesus from the Massacre Of Innocents.

Matthew chapter two describes the events that take place after Jesus had been born into the world and the Magi find Him.

Matthew 2:1-2-Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2  saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”

Notice that the Magi arrived after Jesus had already been born. Indeed, the Greek of this passage confirms this translation:

“The use of the genitive absolute τοῦ δὲ Ἰησοῦ γεννηθέντος, “after Jesus had been born,” enables the name of Jesus to occur first (as it also did at the beginning of 1: 18). γεννηθέντος links with chap. 1, especially the ἐγέννησεν of 1: 16. The aorist participle indicates that the birth had already occurred when the magi arrived in Jerusalem.” (Donald Alfred Hagner Matthew 1-13, Volume 33A (Word Biblical Commentary), 26 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan)

It is also worth noticing that in Matthew’s account, the young Child Jesus is described with the Greek word paidion. When we study the Greek language of the New Testament, we learn something quite interesting:

“1. pais usually means son, though it can also denote a daughter in relation to descent. It normally denotes a child between seven and fourteen years, as distinct from a little child or a youth. pais also suggests the child’s lowly position in society and ancient function as a slave. The word could therefore also mean servant or slave. paidion and paidarion, both diminutives of pais, denote a little child up to seven years or a young slave, although occasionally a young man. Finally, brephos denotes an unborn or newborn child, infant.” (Verlyn D. Verbugge, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology: Abridged Edition 427 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, MI; Zondervan)

If Matthew had wanted to describe the Magi finding Jesus as a newborn, he would have used the Greek word brephos (not paidion).

The Magi seek the help of king Herod, who later becomes enraged when he finds out that the Magi have not fallen for his scheme. He decides now to launch an attack to try and kill the Messiah:

Matthew 2:16-18-Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. 17  Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: 18  “A VOICE WAS HEARD IN RAMAH, LAMENTATION, WEEPING, AND GREAT MOURNING, RACHEL WEEPING FOR HER CHILDREN, REFUSING TO BE COMFORTED, BECAUSE THEY ARE NO MORE.”

Here, the birth and Childhood of Jesus Christ brought forth sorrow in the world.

What can we learn from this?

Let’s start by noticing the fact that these events took place. Speaking of the Massacre Of The Innocents (as this incident is often termed), Skeptics often decry these events, saying that the Gospel writers were making up mythology to bolster the claims of the New Testament. Consider that Matthew was written within a few years of Jesus’ death while there were still thousands of eyewitnesses alive who could easily have contradicted Matthew if he was lying.

Furthermore, perhaps the critics are unaware that official Romans edicts of killing children in such a way were commonplace in the ancient world?

And perhaps they do not know that Herod himself had a history very indiscriminate killing?

Bill Cooper documents:

“In the year 63 BC a prophecy was heard in Rome. It came from one of the many oracles in the city, and it announced that in this year was born a child who was to become king of the Romans. 3 It sent shockwaves through the city and panicked the Senate. Rome was a republic, and the thought of Rome being cowed under a kingship was abhorrent to both the senators and the people of Rome. In great alarm, the Senate passed a decree that every male child born in that year was to be murdered, ‘not reared’-ne quis illo anno genitus educaretur-was the delicate euphemism that was used. It meant that every male child born that year was to be exposed on the city’s rubbish dump without clothing, shelter, food or drink until he died-a long held and common practice in Rome whenever an unwanted child had to be got rid of. It was nothing strange or unnatural to them. It wasn’t even illegal. It was simply the way things were done. In fact, according to their own history (Livy 1: 4), the founding of their city had begun when Romulus and Remus were exposed to the elements by their great-uncle and were adopted by a she-wolf. In Rome’s chilling eyes, therefore, even great good could come of it. In the event, the decree was not carried out. This was not to do with any scale of revulsion against such a crime, but had everything to do with the fact that several of the more powerful senator’s wives were themselves expecting children that year, and each senator hoped that the prophecy would be fulfilled in the birth of his own child. They therefore saw to it that the decree was not registered in the Treasury, which meant that it would be deprived of the force of law. 4 But that did nothing to alleviate the level of alarm and anxiety in Rome. The prophecy, it was later claimed, had applied to Caesar Augustus who happened to have been born in that year and who grew up to rule Rome like a monarch. But who do you suppose was living in Rome at the time of the Senate’s decree as an eleven-year old–an eleven-year old boy who was being brought up and trained even then in all the murderous arts of statecraft? His name was Herod, and he was being brought up and trained by experts to do things the Roman way. He learned from the Senate’s decree that murder–even the mass murder of innocent children–was how one eliminated the possibility of a rival claimant or political opponent. It was a lesson he took on board. We see the results of that lesson in Matthew’s Gospel (2: 13-21). But how likely is it that Matthew wrote the truth and didn’t just invent the story? What does the historical record say of Herod’s political murders? Well, it says this: Herod was made king of Judea by order of the Roman Senate in 40 BC. The Senate knew that Herod had been trained well, and that they could rely on him to eliminate all opposition to the Senate’s will when it came to holding the Empire’s borders in the east. On arrival in Judea, he set about eliminating every one of his Hasmonean predecessors. This included having John Hyrcanus II strangled and Mattathias Antigonus executed along with forty-five members of his party–and that was just the beginning. He had his 18 year-old brother-in-law, Aristobulus, murdered in 35 BC simply because he thought the Romans were beginning to favour him for office. In 29 BC he murdered his own wife, Mariamne, and the following year killed her mother, Alexandra. He eliminated an unknown number of suspected malcontents at the desert fortress of Hyrcania. He also murdered his three sons, Alexander, Aristobulus and Antipater. In 7 BC he put to death no less than 300 of his own military officers and an unknown number of Pharisees who were silly enough to express their political hopes. Even while he lay dying, he ordered all Jewish leaders to come to him at Jericho. He then had them locked up in the hippodrome there with orders for their mass execution at the moment of his death. In his last five days he had two of Judea’s leading rabbis burned alive and all their students slain. And for good measure he also murdered his own son. 5 To put further into context Matthew’s account of Herod slaughtering the male infants of Bethlehem, the town was not large, and the number of male children under two years of age at any given time in those days, could never have been more than twenty or so (one historian estimates as few as seven). As children barely counted in the political world, so the fact that no contemporary mention is made of the slaughter is hardly surprising. But children do matter to God, which is why the killing of these little ones is recorded in His Word, and why Herod will have to account for each and every one of them. However, though the critics never mention it, a specific extra-Biblical mention is made of the massacre by the Roman writer Macrobius, who, in his Saturnalia (written about AD 400), recounts that when Augustus was informed of the fact that Herod had had one of his own sons (Antipater) put to death during the Bethlehem massacre, Augustus is said to have quipped that it were better to be Herod’s pig than one of his sons. 6 Macrobius was certainly no Christian and he would have had zero interest in corroborating anything which Matthew might have written, so his mention of the massacre at Bethlehem is all the more interesting. He unwittingly attests that, at the time, the massacre was a matter of record at Rome and was known about even at imperial level. Not that that’s even worth mentioning, of course. In short, Matthew’s report of the murder by Herod of several infants at Bethlehem can hardly be deemed fanciful. It is perfectly in line with all that we know about this king. Later, apocryphal accounts of the massacre greatly exaggerate the number slain. One says 3000 were killed. Another says 14000, and yet another 64000. It grows with the telling. But not with Matthew. He reports the murder soberly and unsensationally, and as a simple matter of history–an action, moreover, that fulfilled a prophecy (Jeremiah 31: 15), which is another thing which sticks in the critics’ gullet. They hate fulfilled prophecy.” (Bill Cooper, The Authenticity of the New Testament Part 1: The Gospels, 1067-1116 (Kindle Edition))

Jeremiah the Prophet had prophesied of these events, when king Herod murdered these young boys. Notice the passage that Matthew quotes:

Jeremiah 31:15-Thus says the LORD: “A voice was heard in Ramah, Lamentation and bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children, Refusing to be comforted for her children, Because they are no more.”

Raman was an area near Bethlehem, and one ancient tradition stated that Rachel was buried there. Rachel was one of the mothers of the people of Israel. The Jewish readers of Matthew’s Gospel would recall that Jeremiah and the other Hebrew slaves were to be taken to Babylon from Ramah (Jeremiah 40:1). Many of these children of Israel had been killed, and others were being taken into captivity. Imagine the weeping of the mothers!

However, there was a note of hope in this: for Jeremiah escaped to Egypt during this time (Jeremiah 41) when he was near Bethlehem (Jeremiah 41:17), just as the Messiah would escape death by going from Bethlehem to Egypt! Indeed, this is a powerful prophecy of Jesus:

“Rachel is being used by Jeremiah, idiomatically, as “mother Israel.” A rabbinical mind would notice this idiom and begin to look for a pattern that might be repeated in the future—a prophecy. As she died in labor, she called the son Ben-o-ni, “son or my sorrow, or travail.” Jacob renamed him Benjamin, “Son of my right hand.” This is a pattern that we find applied to Messiah. Isaiah 53 calls Messiah “a man of sorrows” and Psalm 2 refers to Him as the “Son of my right hand.” Remember, to the Jewish mind, prophecy is also pattern.” (Chuck Missler, The Christmas Story: What Really Happened, 770-773 (Kindle Edition); Coeur d’Alene, ID; Koinonia Institute)

However, there is more here to consider:

“But there may be more to the name Ramah than that. Rachel’s weeping is located there because it is in the territory of Benjamin which, unlike Judah, was one of the “Rachel” tribes and in which, according to one OT tradition, her grave was located (1 Sam 10: 2). Later tradition, however, based on Gen 35: 16–20; 48: 7, located Rachel’s tomb where it is still shown today, just outside Bethlehem (in Judah, 12 miles south of Ramah)—though what the Genesis texts actually say is that she died and was buried “on the way to Ephrath (Bethlehem)” and “still some distance from Ephrath.” So the ambiguity25 over the place of Rachel’s burial (and therefore of her weeping) may have contributed to Matthew’s feeling that this text about Ramah was in fact also relevant to the fate of Bethlehem’s children, and that therefore Jeremiah’s message of hope for the exiles from Ramah could also be applied mutatis mutandis to the tragedy at Bethlehem.” (R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), 87-88 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, MI; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)

These people could not be comforted. Their loved ones were gone-captives and/or dead-and nothing could bring true relief. So it is with us: there will be times when we mourn and nothing can truly ease that pain. Holidays will be hard and difficult.

Yet in the midst of this reality, the LORD God of Israel offers a word of hope, some solace to help God’s grieving people. He promised those who were heartbroken over death this small root of peace and comfort:

Jeremiah 31;15-17-Thus says the LORD: “A voice was heard in Ramah, Lamentation and bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children, Refusing to be comforted for her children, Because they are no more.” 16  Thus says the LORD: “Refrain your voice from weeping, And your eyes from tears; For your work shall be rewarded, says the LORD, And they shall come back from the land of the enemy. 17  There is hope in your future, says the LORD, That your children shall come back to their own border.

Even in our sorrow, God reaches out to comfort and encourage us. The message of the Gospel is so profound because Christ is in the Manger, here with us in our darkness and pain. We can learn three lessons from this when we face the holidays with pain.

First, it is alright to grieve and hurt. The cost of great love is great pain. How well does God Himself know this, as His great love for His Son and for mankind brought Him such pain at Calvary that we can only barely begin to imagine.

Many are told, “You shouldn’t grieve-you have too much to be grateful for!” I have had Christians tell me, “We should not be grieve,” or, “You are only supposed to grieve for so much time,” etc.

Yet doesn’t the very Birth of Jesus itself teach us about the fact that it is good and appropriate to mourn? I remember once when I was working a man who was delirious with grief over the death of his son. He told me that some Christians had told him it was wrong to mourn since it had been so long. I shared with him the following information:

“The Psalms also help us explore the unthinkable. How can we voice anger, anxiety, our deepest fears and darkest thoughts to God? Psalms drill down into the marrow, getting to the core issues of life. Through the Psalms, God provides therapy for these intense and sometimes painful issues. They help put us in touch with buried issues. I have discovered that the Psalms often surface enormously significant feelings I did not even know were there. Or even more to the point, the Psalms unearth things we desperately need to face—wounds that will not be healed unless they are surfaced and dealt with carefully. We know they are in there somewhere, but we don’t want to deal with them. They seem too painful or too frightening or too threatening to face. As we move through the Psalms, however, some of them take us into that unthinkable emotional geography we might otherwise avoid. They lead us to process painful feelings we might otherwise stuff down inside. This processing releases healing into our souls….The Psalms give us permission to let God know when we feel abandoned or mistreated. Even Jesus himself gives us permission to pour out our grievances to God, to express negative feelings of being abandoned by God. The cross is not the only place we see Jesus praying lament or protest prayers. When Jesus had come back to Jerusalem during the Passover, he went with his disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane, just across from a city gate. In the garden Jesus pleaded with his Father, “Let this cup pass from me.” He was talking about the cup of suffering on the cross. In essence, he was asking God to find another way. He went through the sense of abandonment one feels when our prayers do not seem to be answered. This becomes crystal clear when Jesus, hanging on the cross in the gathering darkness, cries out with a loud voice, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” At that horrendous moment, Jesus was praying the words from Psalm 22: 1–3…What we are hearing from Jesus is a prayer of deep lament. And in these moments, with these words, Christ did a great service to the world. These words, welling up out of his deepest agony, give us permission to cry out as well. Our “make me happy” culture programs us to avoid painful or negative feelings. But serious downsides come with this kind of avoidance. Mental health professionals have long since discovered that swallowed painful feelings—such as anger, fear, and shame—usually produce even more negative consequences. These feelings frequently come out in some destructive form, such as clinical depression, substance abuse, or sexual acting out. The Psalms are not about stuffing or denying buried issues. Perhaps this is why looking at the Psalms—or any Scripture—from a moralistic or legalistic perspective drains the life and pursuit of God out of those coming from these perspectives. Psalms are not to-do lists or even not-to-do lists for entrance into heaven. Neither are the Psalms pure venting. Venting alone—particularly the kind that diminishes other people or God—can make our problems seem larger than life and spread the stress to others. Rather than stuffing or venting, we’re instructed to pray to God. The Psalms give us a praying voice that is not stuffing, not venting, but something much more. Reading, praying, singing, memorizing, and ministering the Psalms gives us an emotional and spiritual health that helps us deal with the dark side of our hearts. God knew this before the Psalms were ever voiced….Approximately seventy percent of the recorded Psalms in the Old Testament are psalms of complaint, lament, or imprecation, which means vengeance. By praying these Psalms we lay our stuff honestly at God’s feet. God is big enough to let us beat on his chest. We need not pretend we have no negative, angry feelings toward God. In fact, he already knows we have those feelings anyway. Rather, we have both permission and language to open our hearts and show rage, disappointment, and anger at God.” (Lynn Anderson, Talking Back To God: Speaking Your Heart To God Through The Psalms, 65-69 (Kindle Edition); Abilene, TX; Leafwood Publishers)

It is alright to grieve.

Second, when you grieve, try to remember that the Lord is with you in your grief. He was with His people in Jeremiah, and He is with His people today. The Incarnation is the greatest example of this! Bo Stern (quoted earlier) powerfully wrote:

“The real beauty of the incarnation is that Christ came. He came for every hard or happy day we will ever face—from weddings to winter solstice—and He promises to be near us on every single one. Will you join me in this unlikely dance of suffering and celebration? Let’s stand together for a moment—not around a perfectly Pinteresty holiday but at the foot of the cross—and look again at the Savior who was willing to step into our sorrow. There He is. For you. For us. For our sin and sadness and our breakdowns in the middle of department stores on Black Friday (oh wait, is that just me?). He is joy, and at the heart of His story is fullness of joy . . . especially for the brokenhearted.” (Bo Stern, When Holidays Hurt: Finding Hidden Hope Amid Pain and Loss, 122-128 (Kindle Edition); Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson)

Finally, your grief is not hopeless. God has given a promise to His people! Here in this passage, God encouraged the women who mourned with the hope that one day things would be different. It is the same promise that God had made through His Prophet Isaiah:

Isaiah 25:8-He will swallow up death forever, And the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces; The rebuke of His people He will take away from all the earth; For the LORD has spoken.

He offers the promise that one Day, the tears of His people will be wiped away. So we wait and live in this world, waiting for the Day when Jesus will make all things new.

2 Peter 3;13-Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

“Furthermore, if it is moving to read of God’s joy in creation together with his clear-sighted view of what is wrong with it, it is even more moving when we consider how much it cost God to redeem his creation. If God can still look on his sinful world with joy, knowing it will cost the death of his precious Son to redeem it–what then? What lives of courage and faith are appropriate for us, who take refuge in and trust such a God, knowing our smaller losses are swallowed up in his greater sacrifice, and his greater joy?” (Eric Ortlund, Piercing Leviathan: God’s Defeat of Evil in the Book of Job (New Studies in Biblical Theology 56), 185-186 (Kindle Edition); Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press)

These things also teach us some ways we can help our loved ones who are grieving through the holidays.

First, allow them to grieve. Do not chide them for weeping, or for hurting. Each person is different, and each person expresses their grief in different ways. Let your loved one know it is alright to grieve.

Second, provide your support and fellowship to your loved ones. Sometimes we may feel awkward because we do not “know the right words” to say. The truth is, sometimes there are no right words to say. We only need to do our best to be there for our loved ones during their grief.

Finally, point your friend to God. You can do this in several ways. A soft word of encouragement, prayer for your friend, faith that God will make things right and bring healing one day.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.

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