One of the unacknowledged problems of Christmas is dissonance. The season lifts us with a luminous vision of hope and peace, captured in the words of our favorite carols.
Angels we have hear on high, sweetly singing over the plain.
What child is this, who laid to rest on Mary’s lap is sleeping?
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.
All is calm, all is bright.
I grew up listening every Christmas to a recording of Lessons and Carols from the King’s College Choir in Cambridge, England. Piercing boys’ voices lingering in the Gothic spaces of their chapel offered an unearthly hope very far from the flat, foggy stretches of farmland around Fresno, California. Those lovely carols, so removed from my actual life, will always be Christmas for me.
I am not alone in clinging to unearthly visions. Many people treasure some icon of Christmas that calls them out of the ordinary—the lights, the manger scene, the smell of peppermint and cinnamon. By themselves they are nothing, but they stand for something we are unable to name, something we long for.
Yet such Christmas beauty never matches up to life as we experience it. Thus, dissonance. All is not calm, and all is not bright—certainly not if we turn on the news and hear of wars and economic turmoil and politics. Nor is all calm and bright in our personal lives. Some people actually dread the Christmas season, if they cannot integrate its sweet images into their own internal sadness. People who have lost loved ones, been diagnosed with cancer, been dismissed from their jobs, fallen out of love and marriage, fought with family members, or simply failed to live as they hoped to do, experience dissonance with the Christmas story as we tell it.
But that is not the Christmas story as the Bible tells it. Particularly as Matthew narrates the coming of the Magi to Bethlehem, all is not calm and bright.
It might have been until that point. Yes, there was some difficulty over the pregnancy, and it was inconvenient for Mary and Joseph to travel and find no place to stay. But by the time Matthew takes up the Magi, it seems the young family has settled into a house. We aren’t told why they didn’t go back to Nazareth, but one assumes that Joseph found work in Bethlehem. They must have had relatives in the area. Joseph and Mary and Jesus appear to be a little family starting out life in a quiet village with some sense that they are destined for greatness but no specific idea how.
Then the Magi come to Jerusalem, looking for the new king. This troubles the tyrannical Herod, who spent his whole life worrying about usurpers. According to Josephus he had a wife murdered and two of his sons executed. His other victims were numerous. He was paranoid and vicious, so his response to the Magi sounds credible. He helps then locate the Messiah using Old Testament prophecy, and he sends them on their way with pious pronouncements of his desire to follow and meet the new hope of Israel.
Thanks to some divine warnings, Herod’s plans are thwarted. The Magi elude him, and Joseph rises in the middle of the night to take his family to a far-off land. Jesus starts his life as a refugee, probably no better off than those children whose faces greet us in child-sponsorship advertisements. Angry that he has been tricked, Herod finds a simple solution—kill all the babies two or under who reside in the area around Bethlehem. “The Slaughter of the Innocents” has been a theme of paintings through the ages—but it is not a theme we associate with Christmas. How could those terrible cries for mercy, those wailing, moaning, despairing, grief-filled plaints, go with Silent Night?
A quick reading of Matthew’s version is so awful, it seems to leave no hope. It portrays a more realistic story than our version of Christmas, but the dissonance remains unresolved.
A more careful reading, though, reveals Matthew embracing the awfulness of life as we know it, but telling the Christmas story so God enters and transforms it.
Matthew does this through two Old Testament citations, “fulfilled,” he says, by events.
We usually think of fulfilled Old Testament prophecies as predictions that came true. Typical is the prophecy that Herod unearthed thanks to the chief priests and teachers of the law. A verse from Micah said the Messiah would come from Bethlehem. Jesus , then, is born in Bethlehem. Predictions-come-true vindicate our belief in the authority of Scripture, and validate Jesus’ identity as the genuine anointed King of Israel—for his life fits the predicted pattern.
The two prophecies Matthew cites in connection with the Magi, however, are not predictions. The first refers to Jesus’ escape to Egypt, which Matthew says fulfilled Hosea’s prophecy, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” As soon as you look at the passage in Hosea, you see that it is not a prediction in any way, but a historical reference to the exodus Moses led out of Egypt. Matthew seems to use one snippet as shorthand for the whole passage, in which the nation of Israel is called out of slavery by a loving God only to rebel. God’s treatment of his “son” is full of tenderness, but the “son” gives back nothing but grief. Even so, God declares that his love will win the day. He will not carry out his fierce anger, but will bring his people out of exile. He will “settle them in their homes” (11:11).
In what sense is this passage fulfilled by Jesus’ sojourn in Egypt? Matthew is claiming that Jesus is the new “Son,” the Israel that will finally fulfill all God’s hopes for them. This time, the son will come out of Egypt and remain fully obedient to the loving one who called him. This time, a loving and persistent God will bring his people home. (N.T. Wright’s contention that Israel in Jesus’ time was still in exile, and understood by faithful Israelites to be so, is underlined by this text.)
Matthew’s second citation is even more complex. Herod’s slaughter of Bethlehem’s children, he says, fulfills Jeremiah’s words about “Rachel weeping for her children” at Ramah.
This prophetic word is not a prediction either. It is a poetic rendering of the worst event in Israel’s history, when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, burned the Temple, and took survivors on the long march to Babylonian captivity. Ramah was a town north of Jerusalem, probably a collection point for those defeated and exhausted exiles leaving their homes forever. Jeremiah imagines Rachel—long dead and buried not far from Ramah—weeping over the desolation of her great-great-great grandchildren, weeping uncontrollably and refusing to be comforted. It is one of the most powerful images in scripture, capturing the full dreadful horror of Israel’s nightmare. Matthew asserts that Rachel’s cry is “fulfilled”—filled out—in the cries of the mothers of Bethlehem. And we might add, filled out in the cries of Mary herself as she watches her son executed, filled out in the mothers who waited with their children for the trains to Auschwitz, filled out in the cries of the mothers in Congo whose daughters are raped and sons are murdered before their eyes, filled out in the cries of the mothers in Mexico whose children die in a blaze of bullets fired by the drug cartels. Human suffering can be unbearable, and it goes on and on.
Here too, however, Matthew is thinking of the full passage. He cites a few lines but for highly biblically-literate Jews the rest of the text will come to mind. For God tells Israel to stop crying. Redemption is on the way. “Is not Ephraim my dear son, the child in whom I delight? Though I often speak against him, I still remember him. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I have great compassion for him.” (31:20) Israel, God says, is on the road home.
Jeremiah’s words are fulfilled in Bethlehem, Matthew asserts. He means not just the uncontrollable weeping but the promise that puts a stop to the tears. In the very midst of that awful day, God is at work to save his son and redeem his people. Redemption rises in the very midst of suffering. God’s love is unstoppable. Tears will be dried.
Not much has changed in our world since then. Political refugees get jerked around by tyrants. Mothers watch helplessly and weep for their murdered children. It is a story as old as Adam, but in Jesus it finds its fulfillment. God not only becomes human, he subjects himself to human violence. He is a political refugee. He lives in the worst that civilization can brew, and he takes all its medicine. Nevertheless, God’s love lives in the heart of this dreadfulness; it endures and triumphs.
This is Matthew’s Christmas story: “God so loved the world that he sent his own son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have life.”
Our glittering version of the Christmas story is not wrong. The carols’ sweet beauty is real, and we do well to celebrate it. Matthew’s version, though, adds realism. It faces the darkness. It embraces the worst of helplessness and sorrow, asserting that God is not absent even there. In fact his love and his promise rise out of the worst that life can offer. All is not calm and bright in this Christmas story, but there is, truly, joy to the world.