Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Grief of Bethlehem

I can’t imagine the grief. I simply can’t.

I’ve been reading and studying about David, one of the most complex and human characters in the Bible. His story is told in 1 and 2 Samuel, as well as in the Psalms he wrote. David came from Bethlehem, and Bethlehem is (and was) known as the city of David.

David is one of three kings most directly associated with Bethlehem, the other two being Herod (“the great”) and the King whose kingdom was not of this world. David and Jesus were born there; Herod committed a crime there that was (and is) almost beyond comprehension.

The account of what is known as the slaughter of the innocents is found only in the Gospel of Matthew. In chapter two, Joseph is warned by an angel in a dream to escape to Egypt, because Herod was going to be searching for the child to kill him. Joseph listens, he takes Mary and Jesus to Egypt, and the family spends an extended period there, likely some years. (Novelist Anne Rice, who had best-sellers on vampires long before anyone had heard of "Twilight" and "New Moon," wrote a wonderful story imagining this time, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt.)

After the family leaves, according to Matthew, Herod – always insecurely paranoid when it came to his throne – orders the murder of every male child under the age of 2 in Bethlehem, to make sure the so-called king he had heard about was destroyed. There was room for only one king in Judea.

It was a brutal time, but this act stands out even for that era.

A number of scholars today discount the story. Only Matthew records it; Josephus doesn’t mention it in his histories; and so on and so on. (I have to remind myself that the Gospel of Matthew will still be read long after these scholars are forgotten.) But it is an act perfectly in keeping with what Herod was like and known for. If he didn’t hesitate to kill his own children, why should he worry about the children of people he didn’t know and for whom he cared nothing?

The movie The Nativity (2006) has a glimpse of the slaughter, but it’s only a glimpse. It’s hard to fathom the scene in Bethlehem. Very young children and babies struck down by soldiers, most likely with swords, along with anyone else who tried to protect them – fathers, mothers, siblings, relatives. The stories that died with those children; all the hopes and dreams replaced by unhealing wounds; the chaos as the attack occurred. How did the soldiers do it? Order all families out into the streets? Strip the children to identify gender? How many “mistakes” were made?

The mind reels and goes numb. And then the aftermath – the wails, the crying, the shock, the horror at what had happened. How do you survive seeing the murder of your child? And the question few if any in Bethlehem would have known how to answer – why was this happening? How did this happen in the city of David? How could it?

The contrast between what had just been and what came to be is enormous – the miraculous birth of the promised Messiah, and the slaughter of innocent children. Two poles of human experience. Two extremes of reality that happened in the same place, very close to the same time. The most extraordinary good, and the most extraordinary evil.

Because of the escape of his family, Jesus may well have been the only survivor of the attack – the one who was the intended victim.

And yet, in a way he wasn’t. Some three decades later, another innocent fell victim to a barbaric regime – the only survivor of that massacre at Bethlehem. And like those innocent children, the innocent man died in front of his mother.

I don’t know how to comprehend such grief. I’ve experienced the deaths of loved ones – a niece at age 2, my grandmothers in their 90s, my father at age 70, aunts and uncles, good friends. But I’ve never experienced what those families did in the city of David, and what the mother of Jesus watched happen in front of her – the grief of Bethlehem.

I can only be horrified by one, and grateful for the other.

(To read more about the topic of grief, visit the blog carnival at Peter Pollock's Rediscovering the Church.)


S. Etole said...

There are some things that our minds and hearts cannot fully take in ... this may be one of them.

~*Michelle*~ said...

WOW...this was powerful.

I felt my throat tightening up reading and recalling that horrific scene in Bethlehem......and then again for when Jesus was crucified.

I try to completely turn over all my worry/anxiety to God, but being human......my greatest fear is losing one of my children. I cannot fathom the depth of pain these mothers/fathers endured.

This was awesome.....thank you for sharing.

Marni said...

"He died in front of his mother"...I was doing fine until I read that.

I did a Bible study called "Jesus the One and Only" and parts of it were from Mary's perspective and what it must have been like to watch her child die. It was painful to read and think about, but it was a bolster to my faith because Mary trusted even though her pain was immense.

Thank you for sharing your heart in this blog.

Anonymous said...

This is a great analysis, comparing the sole survivor (Jesus) to the thousands of children who died in his place. Thirty three years later, Jesus died in the place of all humanity.

Thank you Glynn. I didn't actually think of it that way until I read your post.

Janet Oberholtzer said...

Good post!
Definitely one of those mysteries of life we won't understand on this earth.

Anonymous said...

i found the relating of the children and of Jesus to be...something i had not thought of before. it made me pause in wonder.

katdish said...

So much of scripture I read without really comprehending the weight of it. You're right, how truly horrible to see children slaughtered like that. Thank you for your perspective. Wonderful, as always.

Jason said...

If that slaughter doesn't horrify you...then you need to check yourself.

Great post man.

Helen said...

Great post Glynn. It reminds me of The Coventry Carol. Such a beautiful, peaceful tune, but unspeakable sadness as well.

Lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Lullay, Thou little tiny Child.
By, by, lully, lullay.

O sisters, too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day;
This poor Youngling for whom we sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Herod the King, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day;
His men of might, in his own sight,
All children young, to slay.

Then woe is me, poor Child, for Thee,
And ever mourn and say;
For Thy parting, nor say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Peter P said...

I had never considered the true scale of the horror of that event.. made worse because so many people had traveled back their for the census.

Great post, Glynn.

Thank you.

Maureen said...

You have a rare talent, Glynn. Your words echo feeling, which is deep and comes from a place of understanding, a wisdom in the heart.

Grief at the slaughter of innocents and of Christ's dying before Mary might be imagined, as Robert Lowell wrote, as one feels "with one skin-layer missing": too intense to tolerate.

And yet. . . as Kay Redfield Jamison wrote in her most recent memoir, "Hope can find a place in a mind missing love."

jasonS said...

This is definitely different than I have considered this before. And it is written masterfully. Thank you, Glynn.

Kevin said...

Powerful post Glynn!

Anonymous said...

Such a powerful post, Glynn. It's such a horrible thought, the babies being murdered like that, and then to think of Jesus dying as he did, in front of his mother... wow!

We need these reminders from time to time, thank you!

Candy said...

The word "slaughter" simply makes my blood run cold. I cannot and possibly will not ever comprehend the horror. And as a mother, the grief would be beyond measure. This brought me to my knees, but I needed to be there.

JML said...

That is a scary thing to consider. So many innocent lives-genuinely innocent- who never had a chance to become what they were supposed to. It makes me cringe to think about it.

Good post, sir!!

Anonymous said...

Hard to fathom the violence of the biblical accounts. There are also many other accounts of violence throughout the old testament, and they are each and all horrifying to us, as we read from the comfort of our home or church pew.

It's interesting how you bring out the revelation of God's hope for mankind through Jesus emerged from this most vile act of cruelty and grief. There's a universal spiritual lesson there.

Bernadette Pabon ,Teacher, Director of CCD, Author said...

The horror of such an incident, we hope we never forget the destruction of The Holy Innocents. This historical era must be an example or of the horrific acts people can do for their own gain. No one worried about the pain and grief of those who lived. Pray there was someone there to help them bear the pain. What an excellentpoint you brought up.

L.L. Barkat said...

Can I say... I loved the reversal you highlighted in this. So very thoughtful. As I would want, when thinking on grief.

JoAnne said...

Thank you for visiting my blog and leaving me such a thoughtful comment on my grief post. Nice meeting you Glynn :). What I appreciated about reading your post was the sentence, "It was a brutal time, but this act stands out even for that era." It just jumped out at me and made me realize that when we try to fathom the magnitude of senseless acts of violence in today's world, Jesus already saw the unimaginable in Bethlehem and that we must continue to trust him with our grief.