By Barry H. Corey
Oh! Little town of Newtown, how still and sad we see thee lie.
Newtown. About 100 miles from the little town where I grew up. That Connecticut bedroom village where local industries long manufactured fire hoses and folding boxes. The town where the game Scrabble began. The bucolic community where pizza places are called Carminuccio’s and elementary schools are called Sandy Hook. The New England hamlet where names of streets describe its pastoral landscape, names like Head of Meadows, Boggs Hill and Deep Brook.
Newtown, the little town where streets became dark a week ago.
Along with countless others around the world, I found incomprehensible the merciless slaughtering of twelve little girls, eight little boys and six caring educators, all women. And at Christmas time? Why, for heaven’s sake? I keep asking this question, hardly alone.
As I ask, I recall a halting line from the Christmas carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem. Tucked in those verses is a phrase recalling the pain inseparable from life: “Yet in the dark streets shineth the everlasting Light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
Darkness and fear mingling with hope and light.
The streets are dark in the southwest corner of Connecticut this Christmas season. And they were just as dark in Bethlehem after Jesus was born. Matthew’s Gospel talks about it in chapter two: 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, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “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.”
Matthew’s Christmas narrative reminds us of both hopes and fears. The hope is obvious in the proclamation of the angels, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” But the fear is also graphically obvious through the massacre of innocents at the hands of an angry man.
Hope is more emotionally palatable than fear. We tend to quickly bypass the handful of verses about the slaying of children in a little town. I cannot recall a children’s Christmas pageant when an elementary school child wearing her red velvet dress stood in front of the church for her recitation and said, “Herod gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under.” This doesn’t happen.
Our temptation is to fast forward past this graphic tale of Herod’s soldiers knocking down doors in the middle of the night and dragging toddlers out of their beds while parents were restrained. I don’t even want to imagine what happened next.
Part of me wishes someone had plucked these verses from the Bible. Why did Matthew have to include this grave, chilling, macabre incident in the story of Christmas? Isn’t it antithetical to the spirit of Christmas?
But there it is, right in the Bible. Not by mistake. On the same streets where Jesus was born also lived families who’d soon lose their innocent little boys at the hand of the desperate despot Herod. How do we reconcile the joyful birth of our Jesus with the bloody deaths of those boys?
We don’t know much about that mass slaying of children other than what is written in Matthew’s account.
This we do know. Bethlehem was truly, as we sing, a little town. A population at that time between 300 and 1,000. So it is within the bounds of possibility that the deaths of these children numbered twenty, including the boys from the surrounding hillsides.
And what about the killer? What do we know of him?
Historian Josephus, a contemporary of Herod and Jesus, said that Herod suffered from distemper and his bowels were ulcerated. He was paranoid, possibly clinically, a guy who already had two of his promising sons executed along with a wife. This twisted, barbaric king had been named a few years earlier by the Roman Senate as “King of the Jews.” Little wonder he was in no mood to hear that in Bethlehem a child had been “born king of the Jews.”
And so he fumed with rage insisting that his power and reign and ego would not be upended by a baby born in a remote part of the Roman Empire to a teenage mother, a virgin. And Herod wielded his power by killing these defenseless little boys. How manly!
And the mothers of Bethlehem began to weep, uncontrollably.
A mother weeping for her lost children is as hard as it gets in this life. I heard of a grieving Sandy Hook mother, after hearing the news, crawling into her daughter’s unmade bed that horrific morning and weeping uncontrollably on those soft sheets.
Mothers weeping for their children. Inconsolable. “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.”
Ramah was where the Jews of the Old Testament gathered before they were carried off to Babylon. And Rachel, the wife of Jacob generations earlier, died in sorrow as she gave birth to her second son, Benjamin. She died believing her other son Joseph had been killed far too young. The universal misery of a mother losing a child.
In The Brothers Karamazov, one brother, Ivan, poses a question to his spiritually sensitive brother, Alyosha. Ivan, the intellectual agnostic, asks: “But what about the children? How will we ever account for their sufferings?”
Ivan says that he understands why many adults suffer. They make bad choices. It’s a matter of justice for them to suffer. But the children, he goes on, “their tears must be atoned for. … How is it possible to atone for them?”
A question no doubt asked many times these past few days. How will we ever account for the suffering of children? Pain at times seems random and unfair, forcing us to shake our heads in unbelief or turn our heads in horror.
I suppose the mothers of Bethlehem had questions when they realized that the birth of a Savior cost them the lives of their little boys. I suppose if they knew that Joseph had been warned by God in a dream to flee Bethlehem and dodge the sword of Herod, they would have asked, “Why didn’t God send us a dream too?”
When we try to answer that question, more questions surface.
Even Dostoyevsky admitted that when he wrote his dialogue between Ivan and Alyosha he wasn’t sure he would be able to answer Ivan’s questions either.
Why did Jesus get away, protected by the angels and rescued through a dream?
One writer commented that “Jesus had to get away in order to face the day [on the cross] when the angels would not intervene and when Joseph would not whisk him to Egypt, when Mary, not Rachel, wept and could not be comforted.”
Jesus got away so that he could later atone for the blood of those children and their mothers’ tears. Christ came amidst the pain of life in order to redeem the pain of life.
We have hope in life because we have hope in Christ’s death. Because through Christ’s suffering, aching, anguished, distressed, painfully discomforted death and resurrection, atonement was born. N.T. Wright says that Jesus went “solo and unaided into the whirlpool [of evil] so that it may exhaust its force on him and let the rest of the world go free.”
In Jeremiah’s passage, quoted here in Matthew 2, we see that following Rachel’s lament the prophet writes, “Do not weep any longer, for I will reward you. Your children will come back to you.”
God’s portrait of grief — the weeping mother — is painted over with his picture of pure unbounded joy in the image of children returning. Isaiah writes, “See, I will give you a signal to the godless nations. They will carry your little sons back to you in their arms; they will bring your daughters on their shoulders.”
So Rachel will be comforted after all.
Even Dostoyevsky was able to answer the skepticism of Ivan through the words of a godly monk named Zossima, comforting a grieving mother.
“Don’t you know how bold these little ones are before the throne of the Lord? ... Weep, but every time you do, remember that your little son is … looking down on you from where he is now, that he sees and rejoices in your tears and shows them to God … You will shed a mother’s tears for a long time to come. But in the end your weeping will turn into quiet joy.”
When we sing about Bethlehem, we cannot overlook the phrase that says “hopes and fears” come together on its dark streets. In the eternal framework of God’s sovereignty, in the dark streets of pain and injustice shineth an everlasting Light.
The hopes and fears of all the years meet in Christ Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us. This is the hope we have. This is the promise we must remember especially for those this Christmas whose ledger is more on the side of fear than hope.
There is great mourning and weeping this week in a little town called Newtown, as there was in first century Bethlehem. And like in the town of Bethlehem, caskets far too small are being carried to Newtown’s burial grounds.
In all the twists of the Christmas story, and for all its crushing contrasts between life and death, joy and pain, fear and hope, Christmas is and ever shall be a reminder that on dark and fear-filled streets an everlasting light will shine. Everlasting. Imagine that.
Barry H. Corey is the president of Biola University and a Massachusetts native. He came to Biola from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary where he served as vice president/chief academic officer and academic dean. Corey has an extensive academic, fundraising and pastoral background. He is married to his wife Paula. Together they have three children, Anders, Ella and Samuel.