O little town of Bethlehem, where still small bodies lie
And mothers wail for slaughtered dreams with grief that will not die:
‘Tis in your dark streets shineth the everlasting Light.
The cries and tears of all the years are heard in thee tonight.
Little Bethlehem, cradle of the Christ, is the town nearest the grave of Rachel.
She died there in childbirth, delivering Ben-oni, “Son of my sorrow.”
Israel her heartbroken husband changed the boy’s name to Benjamin, which in a way silenced the voice of his wife, which carried truth too raw and heavy for him to endure.
He set up her grave and then moved on, as so many so-called tough guys are taught to do.
Rachel’s tears went underground for centuries.
But her haunting voice would be heard again, by the prophet Jeremiah, who wept with Rachel’s ghost over a future hopelessly lost.
Ephraim, her grandson’s name, became associated with the children of Israel lost to Assyrian
invasion and brutality, and also with those kidnapped into exile by Babylon.
As the prisoners are carted off, Jeremiah hears the bitter shrieks of their great-upon-great grandmother Rachel, weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted ... because they are no more.
More centuries pass, and now Matthew hears her voice again.
In Matthew’s performance, the role of God’s storm-tossed people is played by Jesus, and the role of the cruel Egyptian pharaoh is portrayed by Herod.
They are part of an elaborate presentation in the first two chapters of Matthew’s gospel of Jesus reprising the holy history of God’s people, the Old Testament in newborn miniature.
But in Matthew’s mind this is no cheap Hollywood remake of a familiar story; this is Immanuel
and this is fulfillment.
Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, living our story, sharing our fate, from beginning to exodus to exile.
God with us not only re-lives but fulfills our story, makes it whole, redeems it, perfects it,
or as Saint Paul would say it, brings it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ.
That story is not complete without Rachel.
Church leaders have long been known to look out at the full crowds on Easter morning with a twinge of sadness, lamenting how many of those happy looking worshipers missed Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, how they missed, maybe avoided, the unpleasant but powerful and indispensably critical parts of the story.
Christmas mirrors that: the happy throngs celebrate a romanticized birth of Jesus but many of them now skip the scary consequences, the infant blood in Bethlehem’s streets, the violence that lashes out in reaction to the threats of vulnerable power and real peace.
But God with us is empty nonsense if God is not with us in our entire story.
Our story includes Pharaoh and Herod and Hitler and school shooters armed to the teeth
with too much firepower and fear.
Our story includes refugees on the run from political atrocities, children dragged across or
detained at borders because home is too violently unstable.
Our story includes unspeakable suffering and innocent death and monstrous tragedies which defy easy answers and shallow consolations.
Our story includes evil, in the hallways of government centers and elementary schools and movie theaters, and if we are honest, also in the dark corridors of our own hearts.
If God is truly with us, God will not be safe, either from the vicious horrors that are part of being human or from the persistent, haunting voice of Rachel weeping for them.
Immanuel, insists Matthew: God is with us.
It may not be the news we want to hear.
As Robert Capon has astutely observed, The human race is, was, and probably always will be
deeply unwilling to accept a human messiah.
We don’t want to be saved in our humanity; we want to be fished out of it.
We crucified Jesus not because he was God but because he blasphemed: he claimed to
be God and then failed to come up to our standards for assessing the claim.
Our Messiah would come down from a cross.
He wouldn’t do a stupid thing like rising from the dead.
He would do a smart thing like never dying.
This escape to Egypt is only temporary; Jesus will get it in the neck too, too young and
too innocent, and his mother will stand at his cross and weep for him, looking and sounding for all the world like Rachel, whose voice will not be silenced.
She refuses to be comforted; she faithfully refuses to suck it up or get over it or move on.
She will not rest, even in the grave, when her beloved children are gone; if they are no
more, then neither is her future; if they are no more, she has no more reason to go on.
Rachel simply will not give up on her beloved children, which makes her look and sound for all the world like God.
Jeremiah gives us God’s remarkable response to Rachel.
There is a reward for your work ... they shall come back from the land of the enemy.
There is hope for your future, says the LORD, and Matthew would add that that hope is named
Jesus, the living proof that God refuses to give up on us, and neither Herod’s armies now nor the guards at his tomb later will be able to hunt him down and stop him.
Jeremiah continues with God’s words to Rachel:
Indeed, I heard Ephraim pleading ... I still remember him.
I am deeply moved for him; I will surely have mercy on him, says the LORD.
And the LORD says it in Hebrew.
The verbs deeply moved and have mercy come from the same word, a word which Rachel will uniquely appreciate.
They come from the word for womb; they are the movements that happen to a mother.
Once upon a time, God opened Rachel’s womb; now Rachel’s cries are opening God’s.
God hears Rachel not just with ears but with womb, with deep maternal soul.
God takes in the cries of the hopeless and inconsolable, the cries we try to avoid and bury
and edit and silence, the wails of anguish and truth too heavy for us to handle.
God does not run away, but draws closer, ever closer, even to entering in.
The Light shines in the darkness, John writes, and the darkness did not overcome it.
The God who refuses to give up on us arrives among us as a threatened baby and a condemned criminal, who rips open a loaf of bread and says, this is my body, broken for you... remember me.
Even death will not silence my voice; this is my blood, shed for you and for all people, for the
removal of sin...there is hope for your future.
O holy child of Bethlehem, remember us we pray;
cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.
You hear the wailing mothers, the shrieks that rise from hell;
Still come to us, abide with us, our hope Immanuel!