This is an excerpt from an older sermon of mine on the Feast of the Holy Innocents…
….. But today I want to attend to something else about this frightening tale — I’d like us to listen to a voice. Not Herod’s voice or Joseph’s, for neither speaks directly in this passage. Not the angel’s voice either, although Gabriel speaks twice, first ordering Joseph to take the family to safety in Egypt and then ordering him home again when Herod dies and most of the danger has passed. No, the voice I’d like us to hear is a voice Matthew reaches way back into the Hebrew scriptures to retrieve and play back for us. It belongs to a woman who at the time of the composition of Matthew’s story had been dead for a thousand years. It is the voice of Rachael, Jacob’s wife, the great matriarch who died while giving birth to her second son, Benjamin, whom she intended to name, ‘son of sorrow.’ Her legend gives her to us as the personification of maternal grief.
Matthew brings her voice into the story of Jesus, quoting the prophet Jeremiah who remembered her grief as he wrote of the calamity that had befallen the Jewish people when they were overrun and deported into exile and slavery in a foreign land. Their Babylonian captors assembled the terrified deportees in the border town of Ramah, and it is there that Jeremiah hears her weeping down through the ages for her own child and for all the children of the Babylonian captivity. ‘Rachael weeping for her children…and she will not be comforted, because they are no more.’
She will not be comforted. There is no way to address a grief like Rachael’s, and she stubbornly refuses everyone who tries. She refuses, in other words, to have the unspeakable reality of innocent suffering diminished in any way by attempts to assuage or explain it. Rachael is a witness to the things in human life that are so awful that they cannot be explained or repaired. They can only be wept over, lamented, and comfortlessly mourned.
Rachael, in her keening wail, gives voice to all the keening mothers of Bethlehem’s babies, and to the un-voiceable anguish of every parent, family, clan, and nation from whom children have ever been torn away and destroyed by a police state, by Jim Crow or apartheid, by political greed and indifference, by war and the glorification of war, by gun violence, or by crushing poverty. Rachael will not be hushed about these things. She will not be pacified.
But these days we are surrounded by hushing, pacifying voices — knowing voices that explain and justify the unfortunate necessity of innocent suffering, as if it happens all by itself without human complicity: “Guns don’t kill people….” We are surrounded by cool voices that cover up or prettify what violence actually does, or paint a sanctified picture of the meaning of suffering: “They gave the ultimate sacrifice…” Pragmatic voices of tyrants. Pandering voices of politicians. Patriotic voices of presidents and generals. Blaming voices of the self-made. Aloof, removed, pious voices (God help us!) of the church.
At the start of a new year, one that will almost certainly see some new atrocity unleashed upon this gasping planet, the stubborn wail of Rachael weeping for her children urges us to resist and refuse these voices of explanation, rationalization, justification, and obfuscation of all the things that are just not right and must not be condoned. Even our own voices that too often echo the hollow pieties of the world.
Rachael’s grief, never to be comforted, urges us also to rip apart with our own lamentation (and our own repentance) the curtain behind which hides the greatest lie — that it just can’t be helped, that we have no choice but to stand by and accept the suffering of the innocent, the enslavement and destruction of the future. For the stuff of her life is the stuff of ours: the murder of innocents, whether it be lives destroyed in office buildings in New York, in hospitals with inadequate supplies in Syria, famine in Ethiopia, orphanages in Rwanda, school buses in Tel Aviv, shot-up elementary school in your quiet town, or razed homes in the little town of modern Bethlehem.
When Rachael makes her brief appearance on the Christmas stage, when this wailing mother of a dead child shows up beside a sleeping child watched over by a virgin tender and mild, we are also reminded, thankfully, that what human words cannot speak of adequately or truthfully, God’s Word, the word we experience in Jesus, can.
The babe who escaped this time, the child who one Herod could not find, but who will be found by another in thirty-three years’ time and will not escape him then — this child is God’s final Word to our world. It is a Word of comfort Rachael might finally accept, for it is a Word of justice. A Word from a Voice clear and true, a ‘yes’ profound enough, courageous enough, persevering enough (through trial, cross and grave) to address whatever horrific stuff our living and dying, our ignorance, sin and fear can present.
Now and forever it is spoken powerfully against the powers-that-be, defeating death itself — even ours, if we follow its resonance and welcome its light.