This holiday season was for many, at least seriously altered by a seemingly meaningless act of violence on December 14 -- just a week and a half before Christmas. And for the families of those 20 innocent children who were slaughtered and of the 6 adults who died protecting them, Christmas was changed forever.
What will the holiday be like for them? We have no idea. What about those gifts purchased by loving parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, neighbors? What will they do with them? Will there be a celebration around the tree? How can there be?
The talking heads and pundits, the newspersons and politicians, the psychologists and preachers, attempt to ascertain why this happened and what can be done to prevent the next horror? And yes we must do something (or things).
There's certainly enough blame to go around -- our American love affair with guns, our culture of violence in our video games and movies, our lack of proper care for the mentally and emotionally unstable. The preachers talk about how we've (allegedly) shut God out of our schools.
There's one factor we don't talk much about -- that this was an act of pure evil committed not by a monster, but by one of our fellow human beings.
There was another horrible act of evil committed over 2,000 years ago, that was also closely associated with Christmas. Although we usually leave it out in our sanitized retelling of the Christmas story. It's told in the second chapter of Matthew, right after the familiar part of the story about the visit of the Magi.
When the Magi came, they first visited Jerusalem and they inquired, "Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw his star in the east and have come to worship him" (Matthew 2:2). Herod the king, after consulting with the scholars, sent them to Bethlehem, the prophesied birthplace, with instructions for them to report back to him "... that I too may go and worship him" (2:8). Herod had no intention of worshipping however.
But the Magi, after worshipping and presenting their gifts, were warned by God and returned "another way," avoiding Herod. Joseph too was warned and took Mary and the Baby and fled to Egypt.
Herod "the Great" was an evil jealous king. He had already murdered members of his own family to protect his throne. This next act was totally in line with his evil character. In a fit of rage, he "sent and slaughtered all the children in Bethlehem and in that region who were two years of age or under, according to the time he had determined from the Magi" (2:16).
Scholars differ as to how many children might have been killed. Not a large number. Perhaps 20? Could there also have been some adults who died trying to protect those entrusted to them? Perhaps a half dozen or so?
Matthew quotes a dirge originally spoken by Jeremiah the Prophet, but repeated by those affected.
"A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and great grief.
Rachel wailing for her children
and she did not want to be comforted,
because they were no more" (2:18).
The images on our TV screens bring this biblical story into the present day.
John in his apocalypse presents a different view of the horrible events in Bethlehem. He sees a spiritual conflict going on behind the scenes:
"... and behold a great red dragon with seven heads and ten horns
and on his heads seven diadems. And his tail swept a third of the
stars of heaven and cast them to the earth and he stood
before the woman who was about to give birth, so that
whenever she bears her child, he might consume it."
(Revelation 12:3, 4)
As in Matthew's account, the evil one fails and the child escapes, "... the One who is going to rule all the nations" (Revelation 12:5). And under whose coming reign all evils will cease.
As both Matthew and John let us know, there is great evil not only in the visible, but in the unseen world. And though we do not understand and we may question why these horrors occur, we must see that ultimately God is in control.
And we need to also see the divine irony. That Child who escaped the slaughter, was Himself put to death thirty-one years later, by judicial murder. But this death had a purpose. As the heavenly hymn says:
"You were slain, and redeemed to God in Your blood
from every tribe and tongue and people and nation,
and You made them to our God a Kingdom of priests
and they will reign upon the earth" (Revelation 5:9, 10).