• Mark Ledbetter

The Christmas Story Never Told!

Yet a Story that Must be Told!

Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi. Then what had been spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: “A voice was heard in Ramah, Weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; And she refused to be comforted, Because they were no more.” Matthew 2:16-18

Christmas is celebrated as a time of joy and expectation, of hopes and the gift of Life through the birth of God’s son, sent to deliver us from the tyranny, power, and penalty of sin. For many, Christmas is a time of celebration of family and feasting, of joy and laughter.

Many voices clamor to be heard during Christmas including the choir at a church where I served as pastor. For a small congregation located among tomato fields and chicken houses, we were able to assemble an array of talented musicians and singers, and for the area introduced the novelty of a Christmas cantata, the more popular one, “Noel, Jesus is Born.” Add to this was the production of the children’s presentation of “O My Stars, It’s Christmas!”

These productions required long hours of rehearsal, the memorization of songs and special dialogue, and creating a set, and all that goes on in such productions. Even so, each Christmas was eagerly anticipated because it was fun, it created fellowship, and frankly the productions were popular as the tiny sanctuary was filled to overflowing. It was, for us at least, a most joyous time of the year.

Yes, the sounds of Christmas spreading joy, cheer, and festivity, family and fun, eating and making merry, all blending their voices to muffle, if not silence, a voice seldom heard at Christmas, the haunting sobs of Rachel lamenting over her lost children. If there is a dark side to Christmas, this story is it. Please read on.

Having served as a hospice chaplain and bereavement coordinator I have learned that for some Christmas is not greeted with the same joyful expectations but a renewed sorrow. For hospice patients and their families, is it may be observed but with a somber air enveloping the anticipated death of their loved one. For those losing their loved-ones, Christmas can be the reopening of a wound, a bittersweet remembrance of one cherished but can now only be embraced in memories and stories.

Perhaps Rachael’s lamentation is ignored because it doesn’t add to the joyous celebration, it doesn’t reach the crescendos of cantatas, the gaiety and gallantry of festivity. Yet, the sound of her sobbing is also a sobering part of the Christmas story, and because it detracts from the joy and cheer the story is not one we want to hear. Yet, for the sake of those who face the celebration with somber thoughts, Rachael’s story is one that should be heard.

The Fateful Detour of the Wise Men

Familiar indeed in the telling of the Christmas Story is the trek of the Wise Men from the east, men following a “star” over “moor and mountain” in search of the one “born king of the Jews.” Faithfully they followed the star’s beckoning until they arrive in the vicinity of Jerusalem.

For some unexplained reason they abandon the star’s direction to stop in Jerusalem, the religious and civil capital of Judea. There Herod, the reigning king of the Jews, could be found. Perhaps they assumed the King of the Jews would be found in the City of David and streams of loyal subjects could be found seeking an opportunity of seeing the new born royalty. There was no herald announcing his birth on the palace steps or paparazzi eager to snap pictures of the new born king. Just suspicion and anxiety.

When King Herod learned the nature of the Wise Men’s visit, he was “troubled” and so was the whole Jerusalem community. Herod was the Roman-appointed tyrannical king who executed anyone he deemed a threat to his throne, including members of his own household. Knowing this, it is no wonder the citizens of Jerusalem were troubled. Were they to witness another execution?

Feigning genuine interest in the birth of a new born king, Herod welcomed the Wise Men and sought religious help in ascertaining the answer to the quest, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” The Chief Priest and the Scribes obliged Herod by citing a passage from the Prophet Micah who declared the birth would take place in Bethlehem.

Having received directions the Wise Men resumed their quest to find the new born king but not without Herod’s deceptive request. After the Wise Men told him when they first saw the star he said, “Go and search carefully for the child; and when you have found him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship him.”

They then resumed their trip and they rediscovered the star that had led them which led them to the house where they found both mother and Christ-Child and worshipped the King of the Jews.

Their purpose complete, they started their return trip, but traveled home on a different route because God had given them a dream warning them to avoid their appointment with Herod.

Flight to Egypt

Joseph, again visited by an angel in a dream, took Jesus and Mary to Egypt. Bethlehem had become a stop-over for refugees. There they could turn to the Negev, or wilderness, to distance themselves from pursuers, or Egypt to seek asylum. They were directed to the latter. This was a pivotal moment in the preservation of Jesus life, as well as a fateful day for the residents of the Judean community.

Herod’s Rage

When the Wise Men failed to return to Herod with news of Jesus’ location, his paranoia raged and in a fit of anger ordered the slaughter of every child age two and younger in Bethlehem and surrounding area. The massacre of the innocents is not recorded in detail but the anguish and sorrow felt by the mothers bereft of her child is depicted by the words of the Prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and a great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; and she refused to be comforted, because they were no more.” Jeremiah 31:15//Matthew 2:18

Matthew’s account does not utilize Jeremiah’s words as prophetic fulfillment but rather as a proper application for the emotions experienced by families, especially mothers losing their children to the cruel designs of a wicked, evil man. If anyone could identify with the pain of these mothers it would be the Jewish matriarch, Rachel.

Jewish traditions tie both (Bethlehem) Ephrathah and Ramah together with Rachael serving as the linchpin. It is said Jacob purposefully buried Rachael near Ephrathah because he had prophetic insight the exiles would pass by her burial place and she would pray for mercy for them.[1] Ramah, a site north of Jerusalem, became the staging ground for gathering the Israelites to be taken into captivity by the Babylonians.

The twin traditions gave meaning to the slaughter of the innocents. While expressing the anguish of Rachael’s loss of her children to exile, the passage also captures the sorrow of the mothers of Bethlehem-Ephrathah.

Suffering for Christ

All the young children slaughtered by Herod’s henchmen suffered because of Christ. They became victims of a cruel despot seeking to kill the Christ-Child.

There are those who have suffered through the ages, and suffer today, yet not because of Christ but for the cause of Christ.

Church history is replete with martyrdom, beginning with Jesus Himself, then Stephen (Acts 7), and James the brother of John (Acts 12:2). Because the Apostle John refused to honor Roman Emperor Domitian (A.D. 81-96) as god (and therefore ironically declared an atheist), and refused to cease proclaiming the gospel he found himself banished on the Isle of Patmos.

John dentifies Antipas, a member of the Smyrna congregation who was martyred (Revelation 2:13). Following Antipas’ footsteps was the Bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp (c 69-c155). Under Roman Emperor Diocletian’s reign (245-311), it is estimated over 20,000 Christians died. Since then untold numbers of Christians have been persecuted for their faith becoming martyrs rather than recant.

Fast-forwarding to more recent times, many were riveted to scenes from the coastline of Libya as Coptic Christians prayed for their executioners. Reports coming from Syria included the death of those who refused to recant their faith in Jesus Christ and are executed by firearms and buried in mass graves, executed by crucifixion, immolation, and drowning.

Somalian wives and mothers witnessed the killing of husbands, sons carted off for involuntary service in militia, daughters taken off as sex slaves, and themselves being ravished and mutilated. A Chinese teacher is forced to take a position in remote China because of his faith in Christ, while a missionary and young sons are killed by angry Hindu.

Have they joined the multitudes underneath the altar, souls killed because of the word of God and the testimony they kept, the many who cry out, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” but rather than vindicated at that time were given white robes and told “they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also.” (Revelation 6:9-11)[2]

The Gift of Compassion

Intercession is the gift of compassion. Just as Jesus willingly and willfully entered into our pain, so should we be willing to enter into the pain of others. The Apostle Paul not only reminds us that when one member of the body rejoices we should also rejoice, but when one member experiences sorrow we sorrow with them.[3]

This Christmas we can gift the gift of compassion to two groups:

  1. our brothers and sisters who are being persecuted[4]

  2. and for also for those who trudge through Christmas with feigned smiles and feeble attempts of joy while emotionally they struggle over the loss of a loved one. We can reach out to the bereaved, the lonely, with a phone call, a special card, alerting them to our awareness of the sorrow they are experiencing.

Rachael’s Story Doesn’t End without Hope

Jeremiah does not leave Rachael in despair but continues to admonish Rachael, as well as her children to “restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears; for your work will be rewarded….There is hope for your future…” (Jeremiah 31:17).

It is this same passage from Jeremiah that we are introduced to the New Covenant, one promising forgiveness and spiritual transformation (Jeremiah 31:33). It is the New Covenant, ratified by the blood of Jesus Christ, our Redeemer who ransomed our soul from the tyranny of sin, the promise of spiritual renewal.

Hope is another reason to celebrate the Christmas Season.

Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:13

Merry Christmas!!

In Loving Memory of

Charlotte Ingram

February 28, 1956 - January 21, 2021

Denise Bradley Wallace

August 22, 1956-November 26, 2021)!

[1] Midrash Rabbah – Genesis LXXXII:10. [2] Christians Should Anticipate Persecution: Persecution and martyrdom are intertwined with Christianity. Jesus never hid from His disciples the possibility of persecution. In fact He told them to expect it. In John 15:20 Jesus said, “If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you...” And then in John 16:2, He said, “[B]ut an hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering service to God." The Apostle Paul repeats this theme: "Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." (2 Timothy 3:12) [3] 1 Corinthians 12:26. [4] For information regarding how you can reach out to the persecuted, visit the Voice of the Martyrs website.

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