THE CHRISTMAS story is one of warmth and light, but there’s a darker chapter that isn’t so often retold. Not long after the birth of Jesus, the Roman-installed king of Israel, Herod, got word that a future king had been born in Bethlehem. Herod, insecure and ever fearful, had all the male children in Bethlehem under 2 years of age killed. But Jesus’s family, forewarned, had already fled into Egypt.
Of the four Gospels, this story of the “slaughter of the innocents” is told only in Matthew, and there isn’t much historical evidence for it other than Herod’s established record of murders and atrocities committed against those whom he saw as threats to his throne. Scholars say that if it did occur, it was not a major event: Bethlehem was a little town, as the carol says, and the number of children killed would have been accordingly small — about 20 or so. By Matthew’s account, after it was done, “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.’ ”
Jeremiah’s ancient plaint was for Jewish children taken by the Babylonians long before his own time, but his vision is as old as humanity and as real this month and this day as it was thousands of years ago. Of all the things that can befall us, this is probably the worst: the loss of a child. Until the past century, it was a fairly common experience in America, where brother, sister, infant might be taken in quick succession by a communicable disease. There is a misconception among some that in those times families became inured to the deaths of children and of mothers in childbirth. But they didn’t; thousands of graveyard inscriptions testify to the opposite. For many people, there is no consolation and little comfort to be had, other than through some conception of God, however named or delineated.
Religious faith has been a persistent reality in most societies since their earliest days. It has over the millennia been mocked for its various theologies, repressed by governments, exploited for political or personal gain, distorted and misled by fanatics and charlatans who kill and coerce others. Yet it remains astonishingly resilient, as does the need to perceive some order and justice and source of consolation in the world that is beyond the wisdom of judges, therapists or grief counselors.
The people in Newtown, Conn. , are in one of those times when the true meaning of the Christmas holiday is felt and expressed by all people of the community, regardless of faith, wealth or social standing. It is a time for coming together and for understanding and consideration, for seeking whatever solace can be had. It is a time not only for joy to the world but also for hope that there is truth in the words found further on in the Book of Matthew: “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.”