Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
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. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”
It is often referred to as the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’. The title says it all. This one incident seems to spoil the whole nativity narrative, so much so that these days we usually drop it from the story. Why is it in there in the original? Because it is one way of saying, ‘welcome to the real world Jesus’.
Herod was a tyrant. He lived opulently and spent extravagantly, building elegant palaces and cities on the backs of a peasant workforce. He murdered, assassinated and so silenced most of his family and close supporters. Though history calls him ‘Herod the Great’, some Jewish voices called him ‘Herod the Monster’. Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, Adolf Hitler, Mao Tse Tung we have had plenty of Herods in our modern world so why not one in Jesus’s? All the questions that we ask about suffering, war and injustice; about the triumph of the wicked and the pain of the poor are right there at the heart of the birth of the Saviour. Historians today estimate that about 20 baby boys were involved in the Massacre of the Infants. Jesus was baby 21, but he didn’t escape death, for him and his parents it was delayed. On the cross Jesus became the 21st of the Bethlehem boys to die. It is because of his death that the other 20 have a chance.
I have a personal stake in all of this because my daughter, Zoe, is part of the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ which runs continually throughout human history. She has profound and multiple learning difficulties. Something happened when she was a baby, or perhaps when she was born. It is all very unfair and painful. There is no individual Herod in Zoe’s story; rather it feels like the meaningless result of the blind tragedy of children suffering. A tragic tale that has run through the centuries. A tragic tale that has touched millions. Bethlehem’s babies needed a saviour, so do lots of other children who have lived and struggled and often died so young. I don’t think Herod’s massacring of the innocents and the perpetual, on-going story of the suffering of children can ever be fully explained. However, I sort of feel that there is something very deep here. That in a way that is beyond words, this story somehow locates Jesus right at the heart of infant mortality, abuse, murder, pain and disability. Don’t ask me to explain this. It is something that I sense and hope for, rather than see and understand.
Jesus the escapee becomes a refugee. The story and flight to Egypt is carefully shaped to depict Jesus as the new Moses, and Herod as the new Pharaoh. The Old Testament book of Exodus shows us the Pharaoh as a murdering tyrant in his attempts to stamp out God’s people, now Herod is doing exactly the same. No matter what happens it is vital that Mary and Joseph protect the life of the baby Jesus, not for his own sake, but for the sake of all those who are going to need him.
One born to suffer,
To be with the suffering.
One born to bleed,
To befriend the bleeding.
One born to weep,
To be alongside the weeping.
So that after the suffering, the bleeding, and the weeping
All might live.
Though I live in a rich and peaceful place,
Help me to listen to the poor.
Open my eyes to the places of distress,
Remind me especially of the children,
The vulnerable, the aged.
Help me to make this a more peaceful world.