A year ago, during an Advent carol sing, a staff conversation at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship reviewed the many painful tragedies of 2014: the mysterious disappearance of nearly 60 students in Southern Mexico, the kidnapping of 300 Nigerian girls, and terrifying reports of abuse and human trafficking right here in North America.
Before long we found ourselves turning to one of the least-sung of recently published hymns, a hymn reflecting on Herod’s terrible “slaying of the innocents.” The first verse begins, “Blest are the innocents killed by a tyrant who clings to a throne. Not just by Herod, not just along ago. Here and today voices cry from below. . . .“ (Lift Up Your Hearts 108).
Tragically, we woke up the next day to the news about the slaying of 148 innocent children in Lahore, Pakistan.
Later that same day, this same rarely-sung song was being shared on Facebook as a song of lament: “Where is the comfort for those who still mourn? Where is the assurance for those yet unborn? God, hear the blood crying out from the ground. Shine on the shadows where secrets resound” (stanza 3).
2015 has been another year of tragedy for innocent victims: martyrdom in a Charleston, S.C., Bible study; the plight of 60 million refugees worldwide; racial strife in Ferguson and Baltimore; the continuing tragedy of abuse and trafficking.
All of it causes us to shiver deep inside—a bit like the shiver we feel when watching the White Witch turn Mr. Tumnus into a block of icy stone in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, or when we feel the evil force of Salazar Slytherin’s “Chamber of Secrets” in Harry Potter. Only this is a shiver we cannot escape by closing the book or turning off the streaming video.
If you are in 6th or 8th or 12th grade, think about how much of what you study in a history class or discuss in current events or read about in literature is similar to the terror of King Herod. Godly and perceptive children of all ages ask, “Why, oh why, do these terrible things happen?” This side of heaven, no article can give a fully satisfying answer to that question.
But there is a word that can be spoken. Matthew, the Spirit-inspired writer of the first gospel, shows us the way.
The Whole, Ugly Truth
Matthew has the courage to tell the whole story of Christmas, including this part: “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 . . .” (Matt. 2:16).
Matthew does not offer us a merry little Christmas. He tells a Christmas story with a death scene, an eerie foreshadowing of things to come.
Matthew depicts the stark contrast between Jesus and Herod—between humility and arrogance, peace and violence, transparency and conniving coercion, life-giving and death-dealing.
He does not shy away from declaring just how much the forces of evil hate the good news. He is willing to tell us that while Jesus is the Prince of Peace, we must never understand this to be a quick fix.
In his commentary on this text, John Calvin points out that Matthew does what other historians of the period, like Josephus, didn’t do. Calvin comments: “Josephus certainly ought not to have passed over a crime so worthy of being put on record.” Calvin sounds here like a prophet lamenting the thinness of newspapers written for a culture that has little patience for international news. He credits Matthew for telling the whole story.
For the last 20 centuries, the church has not done as well as Matthew in telling the whole story. It’s nearly impossible to find a hymn about the slaying of the innocents to put in a hymnal.
But there are exceptions. In the Middle Ages, the annual Christmas pageant mystery plays rarely left out Herod. People who live in a fear-gripped world of despots rarely leave Herod out of the story.
They won’t ignore this story in Bethlehem or Syria this year either. Middle Eastern theologian Kenneth Bailey notes that it feels like God’s Spirit prompted Matthew to record this episode for contemporary Bible readers in the Middle East who live with perpetual war, bloodshed, and violence:
A mindless, bloody atrocity took place at the birth of Jesus. After reading that story, the reader is not caught unawares by the human potential for terror that shows its ugly face again on the cross. At the beginning of the Gospel and at its conclusion, Matthew presents pictures of the depth of evil Jesus came to redeem. The story heightens the reader’s awareness of the willingness on the part of God to expose himself to the total vulnerability which is at the heart of the incarnation. —Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, p. 58
There is no grace in Herod’s heinous act. But there is grace in Matthew’s truth-telling. Matthew is telling us there is no reason why we should avoid the whole story. We tell it as a candid account of what Jesus came to resolve. We tell it to testify that even this terror cannot ultimately thwart God’s purposes.
Note well: when Matthew tells this ugly part of the story, he does not explain why it happens or how it makes any sense. He is not an all-knowing narrator of the story with access to the mind of God. He does not know why such evil events happen any more than any of us do. Sometimes good does come out of evil, and reconciliation and redemption appear in ways that we can perceive. When that does happen, we should testify about it and celebrate it.
But there is also evil in the world that can’t be understood or explained away.
Instead of explaining it, Matthew does something different: he lingers and sings the blues. He pauses in the story, and lovingly stitches into his narrative a record of an ancient lament:
“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more” (2:18).
This is no ordinary lament. This is a 500-year old specimen of classic blues. Five hundred years earlier in Ramah, Jeremiah moaned these very words to lament the people being carried off into exile (Jer. 31:15). More than a thousand years before that, Rachel, mother of Joseph, and her husband, Jacob, moaned inconsolably when their son was sold off into Egypt, the future place of slavery.
Thus, as biblical scholar Raymond Brown pointed out, this one haunting song carries with it the memories of Israel’s two greatest nightmares: slavery in Egypt and exile in Babylon.
Deep calls to deep. The ancient cries reverberate through the centuries.
The echoes are a bit like how the hip-hop protest songs of Ferguson, Mo., evoke the marching songs of Selma and Birmingham, which in turn evoke the spirituals of the Underground Railroad and the heart cries of Amistad. Visit YouTube and find Marian Anderson singing, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen . . . nobody knows but Jesus” . . . or “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child . . . A long way from home” to get a sense of the pathos.
In England, the echo of the ancient lament happened when those old mystery plays of medieval times were revived, along with their haunting lament about Herod known as the “Coventry Carol.” This revival happened just after Hitler bombed out the Coventry Cathedral. Hitler’s bombs woke up the ancient blues.
Matthew’s memory-laden, history-evoking blues is an act of truth-telling, a testament of justice and righteousness. It’s a song that exposes the witless evil of Herod, a song that marks the dignity of those who unjustly suffer.
Matthew concludes, “Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled.” By this he is not merely saying that Jesus’ unfolding biography managed to check another prophecy off the list. Rather, he is saying that the hopes and fears of all the years—even Rachel’s inconsolable weeping—rise to a crescendo and are gathered up in the life in Jesus. Jesus is Israel’s strength and consolation.
The Rest of the Story
Matthew tells the ugly truth and lingers to sing the ancient blues. And then, in the face of evil he can’t explain, he does the one other thing he can do, the one magnificent thing we can do in the face of horrors: he goes on to tell the rest of the story.
Just a few pages later, Matthew records Jesus’ words “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (5:4). A few chapters after that he adds Jesus’ words “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (11:28).
Then Matthew tells us how Jesus healed the sick, welcomed little children, and prophesied the coming day of the Lord, a day of vindication and justice. He tells us how Jesus gave instructions for his followers to share bread and wine as a feast of sorrow and of blessing, a foretaste of a feast to come.
Following that, he unfolds a stark account of another slaying of an innocent: the death of Jesus himself, God’s ultimate answer to violence—a death designed to reverse the power of death, to turn evil back on itself.
In his own way, Jeremiah did the same thing, turning the page. Right after Jeremiah moaned Rachel’s “refusing to be comforted” blues, Jeremiah declares: “This is what the Lord says: Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears. . . there is hope for your descendants, declares the Lord” (Jer. 31:16-17). Even those who refuse to be comforted will, one day, be comforted. The inconsolable will be consoled.
Later in the Bible, Paul picks up this same riff of stark realism and sturdy hope. What better text to gather up our lament and hope than Paul’s magnificent sermon in Romans 8?
The lament is stark and brutally honest: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:22-23).
That lament gives way to some of the most exalted lines in the entire Bible: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (vv. 35-39).
As a parent, when I have been asked, “Why do such evil things happen in the world?” I am grateful for the question, arising as it does from a keen sense of justice and empathy. Still, every part of my conflict-avoidant self wants to change the topic, to grasp for explanations that attempt to make sense of it, to hurry on to happier things.
It takes grace to speak the truth about horrors, to admit I do not have answers, to linger in sanctifying lament, and then to testify about ultimate hope.
Let us pray for this grace for all parents—and for school teachers, too, who need to decide how many of the horrors recounted on CNN Student News their students can handle, and then what to say about them.
And what about church life?
As I work with congregations across North America in a variety of denominations, I am stunned by how many churches almost never pray in public about human trafficking and child abuse, the persecuted church in North Korea and Pakistan, the innocent victims of abortion and gun violence, and the victimization of indigenous peoples all over the world.
In a generation or two, historians may well look back on our worship life and find our debates about music style rather uninteresting compared with the sudden abandonment of intercession for the needs of the world in so many churches.
In the last 20 years, some theologians have written a lot about lament, but so few of us have patience to actually do it. I guess we’d prefer to live in our tiny little world of gift catalogs.
All the while, our sisters and brothers in Syria and Charleston long for us to join them in telling the truth and singing the blues, and our own children wonder what we will say about the world’s most heinous evil.
This year, may God’s Spirit spare us from having a merry little Christmas. Rather, may God give us grace to follow Matthew’s lead: to speak of tragedies, to sing the blues lovingly, and then—relying on the power of the Holy Spirit—to press on to receive the news that nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Questions for Discussion
- In what sense can we consider it a "gift" that Matthew tells the whole Christmas story, including the horrific detail about Herod killing all the boy babies in and around Bethlehem?
- "For the last 20 centuries, the church has not done as well as Matthew in telling the whole story," says Witvliet. Why not?
- We only need to read the news to discover that there is still evil in the world that cannot be explained away. Why do you think it might be important to linger on these realities? To, in Witvliet's words, "sing the blues"?
- How does hearing the whole story of Christmas in Matthew help us in our own times of lament and sorrow?
- What ideas can you come up with for incorporating "the blues" into your Christmas celebrations at home and at church?