Matthew 2:13-23 - The Massacre of the Innocents
12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”
When I was growing up in Bangladesh, our family had a Saturday night ritual every week before we went back to school on Sunday morning. (Our school followed the Islamic week so our weekends were Friday and Saturday.) Once everyone was showered and ready for bed, we’d gather in front of the TV and watch an episode of The Simpsons and an episode of M*A*S*H. Everyone is familiar with The Simpsons but, for those who don’t know what M*A*S*H, it was a comedy series about the lives of doctors and nurses at the 4077th, a surgical field hospital caring for wounded soldiers during the Korean War. It ran for eleven years from 1972-1983 and was a highly rated show at the time but watching it with my family meant that I fell in love with it in a way that others my age didn’t.
While most of the episodes focused on the pranks, banter and relational dysfunction that come from living in close-quarters under the most stressful of circumstances, the writers would occasionally move away from comedy to bring us face-to-face with the human cost of conflict. One such episode has stuck with me for years.
As the peace negotiations are bringing an end to the war, ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce (the show’s main character, played by Alan Alda) is reluctantly seeing a psychiatrist named Sidney Freedman after having a mental breakdown. The key event that Hawkeye keeps returning to is a day when the staff of the 4077th traveled to a local beach on a day off. He remembers there being a party atmosphere on the bus and calling for someone to pass him a bottle of whiskey for someone who ‘can’t wait’ to drink it. As Freedman probes, however, Hawkeye’s repressed memory comes to the surface. There was no party atmosphere. The bottle was not whiskey. It was plasma for a wounded soldier he was caring for on the bus.
Hawkeye continues his story and says that, as the bus traveled back through the conflict to the 4077th, they picked up wounded soldiers and refugees along the way before they came upon an enemy patrol. They pulled the bus off the road and kept everyone quiet. Or tried to. One of the refugees had a chicken with her that kept clucking. She tried to quiet it but it just would not stop. Turning to her in a rage, Hawkeye hisses, ‘Keep that damn chicken quiet.'
Hawkeye is suddenly panicked and distressed that the chicken just stopped making noise. His memories come flooding back. The women had silenced the chicken by smothering it. But it was not a chicken. It was her baby.
Tears flowing and furious at having to remember, he turns to Freedman and says, ‘You son of a bitch. Why did you make me remember that?’
Freedman responds, ‘You had to get it out in the open. Now we’re halfway home.'
Our minds are incredible things, not just in terms of what they can invent, imagine and create, but in terms of the lengths they can go to protect us from pain and trauma … even when pain and trauma are the truth of our experience.
This is one of the challenges we face with the Christmas story. In our efforts to tell a beautiful and magical story, we subconsciously rework the details and, as we do, we rob it of its trauma and rob the characters of the strength they needed to survive it.
We forget that Mary was a teenager dealing with an unplanned pregnancy, probably publicly shamed by her religious culture as a result of her faithfulness to God.
We forget that Joesph, who had every right to join the shaming as he called things off in order to protect his status and standing, faithfully embraced God’s promise and the young girl God chose, no matter the consequences.
This was not a couple who had been dating and had known each other for years. Its likely their family had more say in their match than they did. They may have met angels before they got to know each other.
And we so rarely tell the story of the fear that must have overwhelmed Mary and Joseph as they fled to Egypt. We forget that this young couple, thrust together into God's redemptive story, spent years trying to stay ahead of a wave of violence, always looking over their shoulder for signs of the powers of Empire seeking to snuff out the flame of hope that came into the world under their care.
'Be quiet, little drummer boy. These walls have ears. The King has spies.
And he would rather all children died than ours survived.'
This Christmas, I am doing my best to dive deeply into the raw emotions of the story. The pain and the trauma. The loss and the longing. Constantly and consistently, Mary and Joesph lay down every dream they’ve ever had and leave every home they’ve ever known to keep the Christ-child safe.
This year, I’m learning that the God who gave himself for us had parents who gave themselves for him.
Scott Evans is the Church of Ireland chaplain to University College Dublin, producer of The Graveyard Shift Podcast and co-founder of Paradoxology, a prayer space at Ireland’s Electric Picnic music festival. He grew up in Bangladesh and his life has been a series of crazy decisions, odd adventures and bad haircuts. He is also the author of 3 books, Closer Still, Beautiful Attitudes and Failing From The Front (& Other Lessons From The Lives of Losers.) He loves Vietnamese food, coffee, writing, Aston Villa and Jesus.