I honestly wanted to write about the Grinch today. Seriously. I got to thinking about the term “grinch” and what it’s come to mean, so I started looking up the etymology of the word, which lead to a whole bunch of searching and, somehow, me ending up at Matthew 2:13-18, commonly referred to as the Massacre of Innocents.
If you don’t know the passage, it’s pretty straightforward: after Jesus’ birth and the visit of the Magi, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him that King Herod would try and take the life of the Christ-child. The angel told Joseph to take Mary and the baby and escape to Egypt. So they did.
Herod, enraged by the fact that the Magi never told him where the new King of the Jews was, ordered his soldiers to kill every boy child under the age of two in the area of Bethlehem. And his soldiers carried out his order.
The major historical works of the time (mainly Josephus) don’t mention the slaughter of babies in Bethlehem, leading some critics to doubt whether the event actually happened. But the reality is that Bethlehem was a small town in Herod’s province, and the likelihood of there being more than 20 babies within the specified age range is very slim.
In other words, history probably doesn’t mention it because it wasn’t that big of a deal.
Herod’s other efforts towards infanticide are well documented, including him having his own son killed. As one person said, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son.” So it’s not exactly like the Gospel writer is suggesting something out of Herod’s character or historical resume. The incident in Matthew is quite in keeping with Herod’s particular evil.
It just wasn’t that big of a local story. So no one covered it.
Think about that. Today, that would never happen. We’re so hardwired towards bad news of any sort that things bordering on effluvia take control of our media cycles and Twitter feeds. If someone, somewhere, commits an act of atrocity, we know about it within an hour.
Sometimes within a minute.
And yet, were it not for the meticulous writing of Matthew, these children of Bethlehem, these few, unnamed babies, would have ended up on the floor of history, forgotten. Instead, they become a sad part of our story of redemption. Indeed, one of the most haunting of all Christmas carols is the Coventry Carol, a 16th century song that imagines the words of the mothers in Bethlehem on the night that Herod’s men struck.
That is a haunting refrain, a lullaby to a generation wiped from memory by the greed and paranoia of one man. And it is entirely fitting as a vital part of Christmas: to remind us that the world we inhabit was and is a dark place, filled with dark hearts, and that our hope–our joy–is found in the birth of the Light who dispels Darkness. We rightly turn our eyes towards Bethlehem’s manger, hungering for a look at the Savior, and Matthew makes sure to bring us back to the reality of our own sin.
Matthew shares with us the massacre of innocents to show us the mercy required to save us. God, vulnerable in human flesh, giving himself to us to be beaten and mocked, tortured and destroyed. God, entering into our world on our terms–soft and pink and exposed. We celebrate this, but do we really think about it? Do we really stop and consider that baby in the manger and what his life, his very appearance in our world, really means?
The Massacre, as is it were, of Innocence himself?
I pray that today you’ll take a few minutes to consider all of the Scripture surrounding the birth of Jesus (Matthew and Luke), and look at the story not just through rose-colored lenses, but as it really was: the entrance of Light into a very, very dark place.
Then, may that light shine brighter for your searching.