Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” –Matthew 2:16-18
Look at all the pieces of your Nativity set sometime. Of course you have the principal players, Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. If your Nativity scene is worth its salt, you’ll also have some shepherds, perhaps an angel, and probably some animals. And then there are those wise men (who of course didn’t get there until later, and of course there weren’t three of them. But it’s okay, you don’t need to smash them to bits; they’re bearing presents, which makes them kind of Christmassy, so they can stay). If your Nativity set is extra fancy and (as we’ve seen) extra wrong, you might even have a stable or a star. (Yeah, go ahead and smash the stable and the star. Those are just false).
Are you missing any pieces of the Christmas story? What about the soldiers?
“The soldiers?” you might ask. That’s right, the solders. Even though they never appear on any Christmas cards, and there are no carols written about them, the soldiers were part of the Christmas story too. But they don’t fit very well with our nice, sweet “silent night,” “peace on earth” view of Christmas, so they usually get left out. I’ve never once seen a children’s Christmas pageant that incorporates the real ending of the Christmas story.
For you see (in case you’ve forgotten), the Christmas story doesn’t end with the angels or the shepherds, or even the wise men coming to visit Jesus. Rather, the Christmas story actually ends with one of the most terrible things in the Bible: King Herod, angry that the wise men didn’t hand Jesus over to him, sends his soldiers on a murderous rampage and kills every single little boy in Bethlehem and surrounding region.
Stop for a minute and meditate on this horror. Enter into the story. I don’t want to, because I have a little boy who is just about the right age to be the target of Herod’s slaughter. This is not fun to dwell on; I would rather turn away. And yet we can’t miss this; it’s in the text for a reason.
Imagine the confusion and terror of parents as doors are kicked in and soldiers armed with swords and shields and spears burst in and start throwing furniture around. “How old are your children?” they demand of frightened mothers. And a mother, not even understanding what is going on, probably give an honest answer that haunts her for the rest of her life: “My son is just over a year old.” How could she know what the purpose of the question was?
But fear and confusion turns to screaming and pleading as soldiers yank the toddler out of her arms. Next door and throughout the town, babies’ cries are silenced by cold and efficient steel. The soldiers ignore the mother’s hysterical, panicked shrieks and make short work of their gruesome task. Leaving the murdered child on the floor, Herod’s thugs move on to the next house, leaving a shattered family in their wake. Fathers who try to defend their families are beaten unconscious. Mothers who cling to their children with ferocious protective energy are run through with spears and left to die. Blood is everywhere, all over floors and doorways, like a mocking, inverse Passover. Chaos and screaming and weeping echo through the horrific, nightmarish streets of the little town of Bethlehem.
Do you feel the horror?
This is how the Christmas story ends. Have you ever heard a Christmas message on this text? Ever read this part of the story to your children around a warm fire on Christmas Eve? I don’t think “O Little Town of Bethlehem” has a verse about this event.
And yet this is a vital part of the Christmas story. Because without it, our Christmas runs the risk of being so cheesy— “away in the manger,” “peace on earth,” snow and mangers and presents—that we might never really have to think about why Jesus came in the first place.
In the first chapter, we looked at the setting of oppression and violence into which Jesus arrived, and now we’ve come full circle. There’s a reason for that: this is why Jesus came in the first place. Jesus came because our world overflows with atrocities like this. The world is filled with little towns of Bethlehem, where blood runs in the street and mothers weep inconsolably. This is a world full of terrible things, tragedies and heartache and violence. People get hurt, people cry, people die. This is a broken, weeping world. This entire globe is filled with hurt and death and tears. Ever since Satan tricked Adam and Eve to try life without God, Satan has been doing his very best to make hell on earth. And all too often, he succeeds.
Especially around the holidays, the burden of the Fall and Curse weighs heavily on hearts. How many families, broken by loss or betrayal or death, are wounded all over again at Christmastime as they reflect on what was ripped away from them? When we fail to include the bloody finale of the nativity story in our celebrations and remembrances, we fail to communicate the whole message of Christmas: that Jesus came for them.
Remember in the first chapter, how I said that the angels singing “Peace on earth” were not out of touch with reality, but were instead declaring war on every enemy of peace? Welcome to the opening salvos of the war, hell’s first retaliatory strike against the Prince of Peace. Christmas is God’s declaration of war: war on Satan, war on sin and suffering and crying and pain and death. And the slaughter of innocents in Bethlehem is what it looks like when Satan fights back.
Christmas is the violent beginning to a violent war story, and the question posed by the bloodshed in Bethlehem is: which side will win? Hell on earth, or peace on earth? The story that starts with blood and tears on Christmas keeps going right up to the blood and tears of Good Friday. It will take the death of this Savior to destroy the power of sin and death and hell. But of course, the story doesn’t end there: the empty tomb of Easter proves that on that dark Friday, Jesus won; that even today, Jesus is winning; and that one day, Jesus will win.
The Christmas story—the whole Christmas story, with the soldiers and blood and weeping and everything—is a reminder that even though the victory has been won, the war isn’t over yet. People still hurt, hearts still break, bad things still happen. But not always. Not forever. That baby in the manger came as conqueror, crushed Satan at the cross, and is coming back one day to finish the job. “Peace on earth” will win.