Monday, December 15, 2008

The Dark Side of Christmas

“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” “Joy to the World,” “Jingle Bells.” Couple these ubiquitous songs with the ringing of the Salvation Army bells, the gleeful shouts of excited children browsing toy stores with their harried parents, the chatter of cash registers, and the ever-present bustling crowds and you have—Christmas. Christmas is to be a time of joy and celebration, a time of family gatherings and sharing lives. Perish the thought that there could be a “dark side” to this holiday season.

But a dark side there really is. Frank knows about this dark side. As he drives by the houses decked with lights he remembers how it used to be—the family outing to cut the perfect tree, the making of “lists” of hoped-for presents, the subterfuge of playing Santa on Christmas Eve, the Christmas Day feasting and gentle table-banterings. That was last year. This year there will be no tree-cutting adventure, perhaps there will be no tree at all. There may be some vague hope for a gift or two, expectations are at an all-time low. Santa suits are out. The Christmas feast will be a Denny’s “special,” and afterwards, perhaps, there will be the visit across town to give some presents to Millie and Matt who live with their mother and step-dad. Yes, Frank knows about this dark side of Christmas. Christmas is not the “happiest time of the year” but the worst time of the year.

This dark side of Christmas has a biblical referent which is usually left out of the Christmas pagent. We see the children role-playing wise men, shepherds, Herod, Joseph and Mary, and, of course, the Christ child. We do not usually revisit Bethlehem one to two years after the Christmas event to witness the slaughter of the innocent children. Why inject pain into such a gloriously joyful season? But this is exactly what Matthew does in 2:16-18, and in doing so he focuses the real meaning of Christmas in dramatic fashion.

After the wise men returned to their own land another way to escape King Herod (2:12), Matthew records the migration of the holy family to and from Egypt and ties it to the words of the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.” Since the events narrated in 2:13-15 could be coupled very nicely with 2:19-23 and the return of Joseph, Mary and Jesus to Nazareth without including verses 16-18, the question must be asked, “Why did Matthew insert this dark and painful event into the Christmas story?”

The reason for Matthew 2:16-18 lies in one fact and in the answer to one question. The fact—Matthew was writing his gospel in large measure for the benefit of the Jewish people. Given this Jewish context, the quotations from the Old Testament are designed to draw connecting links between previous prophecy and present events so as to focus the Jews on the Person of Christ, the Fulfiller of the ancient Messianic promises. Clearly this connection is seen in 1:23; 2:6-7; and 2:15; as well as in 2:23, even though the exact Old Testament referent for this last passage is obscure. The question—How does Jeremiah 31:15, the quotation in 2:17-18, fit into Matthew’s development of the Christ-child story?

Jeremiah 31 is a major Old Testament touchstone for the future of the nation of Israel. The high point of the chapter is the description of the New Covenant in verses 31-34 that begins thus:

Behold, days are coming,” declares Yahweh, “when I will make with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah a new covenant, unlike the covenant I made with their fathers in the day I took hold of their hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, which covenant they broke, even though I was their husband,” declares Yahweh.


This certain future, however, proceeds from the immediate context of national defeat, humiliation and imminent exile. Verse 15 is the centerpiece of this travail:

Thus says Yahweh, “A voice in Ramah is heard—lamentation, weeping marked by extreme bitterness; Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted for her children, because they are not.”


The village of Ramah, located about five miles north of Jerusalem on the Water-parting Road, the north-south highway, was an assembly point for the deportation to Babylon in 586 B.C. (Jeremiah 40:1). Here Ramah is a symbol for that soon-to-be national tragedy. Rachel also is used in this passage as a national symbol. Keil (The Prophecies of Jeremiah, vol. 2, p. 25) explains:

Just as the people are often included under the notion of the “daughter of Zion,” as their ideal representative, so the great ancestress of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh is here named as the representative of the maternal love shown by Israel in the pain felt when the people are lost.


The lamentation and weeping without even desiring to be comforted dramatizes the enormity of the events associated with the forthcoming Babylonian Captivity. Yet this painful prophecy of Jeremiah 31:15 is surrounded with glorious promises of future blessing. In fact, the very next verses appear emotionally incongruous, even cruel, in their exhortation:

Restrain your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there will be a reward for your work,” declares Yahweh, “And they shall return from the land of the enemy. And there is hope for your future,” declares Yahweh, “And children shall return to their own border."


Thus we have in the center of Jeremiah 31 both the greatest national tragedy and the greatest national blessing existing side-by-side!

Matthew’s quotation in 2:18 is stated as a fulfillment of Jeremiah 31:15. Since Ramah and Rachel are symbols in the Jeremiah text, the nature of that fulfillment cannot be related to the specific town or person mentioned. Instead the fulfillment must connect with the symbolism—Israel and the exile. Matthew’s use of this symbolism in verse 18 stems from the equating of Jesus with Israel in verse 15 by quoting Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I called My son.” In other words, Jesus is the embodiment of the nation and the “exiled” son who returns to His own land. The “Slaughter of the Innocents” event with its quotation from Jeremiah becomes a pointer for the Jewish readers to the national pain that their forefathers and they experienced through disobedience as well as an indicator that the child Jesus is the locus for the fulfillment of the promised blessings. The Herodian outrage at Bethlehem, then, was not itself the antitype of the prophecy Matthew cites but the occasion for citing the prophecy concerning Israel’s future. The readers surely identified with the grief over the Bethlehem event as their forefathers did over the deportation in 586 B.C., but they were forced also to relate Jesus’ return out of Egypt to the promise of eventual blessings for the nation. Jesus becomes the key figure for that eschatological event, and this is what is meant by the fulfillment motif. In Hagner’s words (Matthew 1-13, p. 38),

Again, in Matthew’s perspective, Jesus is understood as summarizing the whole experience of Israel as well as bringing it to fulfillment. Every strand of hope and trial in the OT is woven together in the eschatological appearance of the Promised One.


Carson (“Matthew,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, p. 95) speaks to the hope aspect:

Jeremiah 31:15 occurs in a setting of hope. Despite the tears, God says, the exiles will return; and now Matthew, referring to Jeremiah 31:15, likewise says that, despite the tears of the Bethlehem mothers, there is hope because Messiah has escaped Herod and will ultimately reign.


He continues:

The tears of the Exile are now being “fulfilled”—i.e., the tears begun in Jeremiah’s day are climaxed and ended by the tears of the mothers of Bethlehem. The heir to David’s throne has come, the Exile is over, the true Son of God has arrived, and he will introduce the new covenant (26:28) promised by Jeremiah.


In this sense, Matthew’s insertion of the tragic Bethlehem slaughter dramatically punctuates the meaning of Christmas. There is both pain and promise necessarily associated with this yearly celebration.

If pain and promise both are part of the Christmas story as presented by Matthew to his Jewish audience—disobedience with its terrible consequences and salvation by God’s grace—pain and promise is also part of the Church’s theology of Christmas. Paul reflects in Galatians 3:13-14:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law when he became a curse for us—for it stands written, “Cursed is every one who hangs on a tree”—in order that the blessing of Abraham in Christ Jesus might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.


With a broader brush Paul continues in 4:4-5:

But when the fulness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son who was born of a woman and who was born under law, in order that He might redeem those under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.



Christ was born to be crucified, to experience our pain, so that we might have life. The essential but often neglected symbol of Christmas is the cross. That Christ came to die points to the pain; that Christ came to save points to the promise. Christmas is a pain and promise event.

The pain and promise of Christmas has a Jewish connection through Matthew and Jeremiah and a Church connection through Paul. But there is also a contemporary connection—Frank. The pain associated with Christmas arrives every year, but along with the arrival of pain is the promise of life—not only the promise of eternal life, as blessed as that is, but also the promise of an abundant life. “I [Christ] have come”—the Christmas event—“that they might experience life, and might experience abundant [life]” (John 10:10b). What Frank needs to realize is that Christmas brings not only pain but also promise, and the promise exists for him. Perhaps he needs a pointer, as did Matthew’s Jewish readers, to the locus of the promise, Jesus Christ. Once he sees Him maybe then will he be able to focus on the positive instead of the negative aspects of this “happiest time of the year.”