Thursday, December 30, 2010

Matthew 2: Have a Very Bloody Christmas!

So I held off on my Christmas post until after Christmas this year, because frankly, it's not very nice. I didn't want to mar your holiday--full of presents and nogs and carols and midnight masses--with a less savory, but no less pertinent, Christmastime image:

Dead babies.

Now hold on: don't click your browser's "back" button yet. I'm not trying to be unnecessarily provocative here.

I'm just telling you that if you want to think seriously--and Biblically--about the story of Jesus's birth, you may consider wandering wise men, singing angels, flabbergasted shepherds, and virgin births. But you must also ponder their cost: the death of every infant in and around Bethlehem.

I'm always struck by the stark differences that separate Luke's Christmas story from Matthew's. (Remember that John and Mark don't even mention Jesus's birth; both gospels begin instead with Christ's baptism.)

Luke's account of the nativity is the one most frequently read at Christmas Eve services, and it's easy to see why: the gospel gives us, in measured narrative detail, the census that draws Joseph to Bethlehem, the manger birth, the angel choristers singing "Glory to God," and the shepherds' adoration. And it ends so peacefully, with a new mother's quiet reflection: "Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart" (Luke 2:19).

Not so with Matthew, for whom the delivery of the Christ child happens abruptly, in a dependent clause attached to a sentence addressing Mary and Joseph's sexless relationship: "he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son." And Matthew adds, almost as an afterthought, "and he named him Jesus" (Matthew 1: 24-25).

Matthew's one lasting contribution to the popular, synthesized version of the nativity story is the wise men (Greek: magi), who astrologically predict the Messiah's birth and then follow a star to Bethlehem to find him. However, on the way, they make a fateful misstep that will turn Matthew's nativity story into a bloody tragedy.

In the beginning of the second chapter, the magi stop by King Herod's palace to confirm their findings. They ask the testy monarch, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage" (2:2).

In considering their approach, it's always hard for me to understand how such "wise" men could be so daft. You don't go to the king of the Jews and ask, "Hey, can you tell us where we can find the king of the Jews?" That's almost as stupid as bringing embalming fluid to a baby shower. (Oh wait ... they do that too.)

Not surprisingly, Herod is threatened; he is king, and a Messiah would mean an end to his reign--and likely his life. Thus, he tries to turn these not-so-wise men into spies--a recon crew for a band of assassins to follow. And while a pair of divine dreams--one for the magi, one for Joseph--save Jesus's life and send the holy family fleeing to Egypt, the damage has already been done.

If Herod cannot use a scalpel to remove this tumorous young king, he will use a machete: "When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men" (2:16).

Thus in Matthew, one very special baby's life is spared, but countless others are lost. And the second chapter of this gospel delivers not singing and peace, but slaughter and flight.

For at least two twentieth-century authors--Albert Camus in The Fall and Jose Saramago in The Gospel According to Jesus Christ--the massacre of infants in Matthew is the salient fact of the Christmas story. No amount of straw and swaddling can cover this miniature genocide.

Camus's Jesus lives knowing that not even he is truly blameless; this spotless lamb has some blood on his hands, even if those hands kill no one. And Saramago's Jesus is forever tortured by a guilty conscience that will not let him forget these innocent dead. For both men, Jesus will carry the memory of these small ones--who died for him--all the way to the cross.

So as you sit to dine this Christmas week, bow your heads not only for Jesus, the proverbial reason for the season, but for the babies of Bethlehem who died in his stead.


  1. Instead, maybe we should think about how evil a person like Herod, the self-proclaimed "King of the Jews", must have been to make such a decision. And at the same time, we should use this story to strengthen our reason to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ who stands for all things that this Herod fella did not. If this little baby wasn't such a big deal, his being the actual Son of God would be harder to believe. To me, Herod's reaction just verifies how pissed the followers of the Jewish faith were that the little baby water-walker was born. Go JC and Merry Christmas!

  2. Thanks for the comment, anonymous; there's no escaping the fact that Herod is the real villain of this story!

    However, I disagree with your suggestion that turn-of-the-millennium Jews were universally--or even generally--"pissed" at Jesus's birth. We don't have the historical evidence to support such a claim. It is likely that a plurality of Jesus's Jewish contemporaries never heard of this new Christ--his movement took time to grow.

    We do know, however, that throughout most of the first century, a strong contingent of Jerusalem Jews believed that the nascent Christian movement and Judaism were thoroughly compatible.

  3. Compatible? How did that story end again?


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