15 December 2010

nativity: 5

Comfort and Joy.

The most difficult part of the Christmas story, mostly ignored by modern pageantry, is Matthew 2:13-18, which records the slaughter of innocent children on orders from a raging tyrant. It has been figured that Bethlehem's meager size meant that this would have amounted to a small number of children - perhaps one dozen. This might be historically accurate but not comforting at all.

What Matthew does provide for his reader is the reference to Jeremiah 31:15 . . .

"A voice is heard in Ramah,
mourning and great weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more."

Yes, it makes sense that there would be weeping - even weeping of biblical proportions - at the murder of babies in Bethlehem. But how does this explain how Matthew, along with the rest of Jesus' followers, can refer to this as gospel?

First, we must remember that gospel isn't simply "good news" as though there aren't any painful portions to the story. It is the euangelion of Jesus, the narrative of his coming into reign and rule which is the greatest realized hope for the world. In contrast to the euangelion of other rulers and Caesars, this is the truly significant story that impacts the entire course of the cosmos. So, Matthew is free to tell the story with its painful beginnings and all of its ups and downs along the way.

Second, Matthew can make the claim that this weeping is gospel on the basis of the great story of Rachel's weeping in Ramah, given a hopeful dimension in Jeremiah 31. But Rachel's weeping goes back further still, to Genesis 30, where she is unconsolable in her lack of bearing children for her husband Jacob. She weeps for her inability to play her part in the covenant people, and emerges from this sad state only when she finally gives Jacob a son. She dies during the birth of her second child while on the way to Bethlehem, and is buried along the road near Ramah.

So we have a figure who is noted for her weeping over children, who never makes it home, and who is laid to rest in a town that will repeatedly see the people of Israel taken into captivity. Ramah was north of Jerusalem, and was part of the natural route which exiles would have been forced to march on their way to captivity. And there was Rachel, once more weeping for the lost children of Israel in a city that witnessed and mourned the loss of their own.

The hopeful dimension of this is found in the verses which follow Jeremiah 31:15, where YHWH begins to tell his people Israel to restrain themselves from weeping because of the hope that is coming to them. It culminates in Jeremiah 31:21-22 . . .

"Set up road signs; put up guideposts. Take note of the highway, the road that you take. Return, Virgin Israel, return to your towns. How long will you wander, unfaithful Daughter Israel? The LORD will create a new thing on earth - the woman will return to the man."

Matthew can acknowledge the harsh reality of evil in this world, and still see the hand of God at work in it. This comes from a strong commitment to the covenant promise of God that he would restore his people. And as he looks at the entrance of Messiah into the world he readily identifies the promise of God over the pain of evil. He knows that evil will always respond when God performs a mighty act. The implied question (often answered) throughout the gospel is whether or not God's own people will respond when he performs a mighty act.

The comfort and joy of this child comes not through the absence of conflict when we draw near, but the fulfillment of restoration, establishing a kingdom of justice and righteousness.

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