O Bloody Town of Bethlehem

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; they’re bearing presents, which makes them kind of Christmassy, so they can stay). If your Nativity set is extra fancy, you might even have a stable or a star.

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.

In case you’ve forgotten, or were never told: 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 horrific gory stories 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.

Don’t skip on from this too quickly; don’t turn away back to the familiar and comfortable sentimentality of Christmas. Stop for a minute and meditate on this horror. Enter into the story.

Imagine the confusion and terror of parents as doors are kicked down 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 (and, with it, our entire faith) 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 fact, I’ll go so far as to say that this gory story is the whole point ofChristmas. Herod’s slaughter of the innocents is “the reason for the season.” Jesus came because our world overflows with atrocities like this. There are little towns of Bethlehem everywhere, where blood runs in the street and mothers weep inconsolably. The world is full of terrible things, tragedies and heartache and violence. People get hurt, people cry, people die. This is a broken, weeping, groaning planet. 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.

When the angels sang,“Peace on earth” to the shepherds, they were not out of touch with reality. They knew what was coming, and what the arrival of Immanuel meant for this small town. In fact, I wonder how many of those shepherds had little boys who would soon be murdered by Herod’s death squads. “Peace on earth” didn’t mean warm feelings and happy holidays on that first Christmas. It meant war.

The song, “Peace on earth” was the announcement of heaven’s long-awaited war campaign against every enemy of peace. The King of kings had invaded, and the war had begun. C.S. Lewis, writing in the darkest days of World War II when a Nazi invasion of Britain was expected at any time, saw the Christmas story for what it was: an act of war. “Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.”

Christmas is the opening salvo in that campaign to retake this fallen world for the rightful king. Christmas is God’s declaration of war: war on Satan, war on sin and suffering and crying and pain and death. The indiscriminate murder of children in Bethlehem is what it looks like when Satan fights back. This is hell’s first retaliatory strike against the Prince of Peace, an attempt to take out the enemy before he undoes hell’s empire. Of course Satan is going to fight back, and he doesn’t care about collateral damage.

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.

It frustrates me that all of our Christmas carols gloss over this central reality of the Christmas story. So I wrote a new verse for “O Little Town of Bethlehem” that captures what Christmas is all about. Feel free to incorporate it into your candlelight Christmas Eve services:

O little town of Bethlehem,
Where blood runs in the streets,
Where reigning evil holds its sway
And stricken mothers weep

We hear their desperate crying;
Our own cry pleads, “How long?
Until you come and rescue us
And right our world’s wrongs?”

The Christmas story—the whole Christmas story, with all its gore—is a reminder that “though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” He has come to set right what has been broken. The gospel is the gory story of how the King has won the victory. And yet, though the victory is won, today the war still rages. 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.

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