Saturday, December 24

Advent Reflection: Through the Eyes of Rachel - Christmas in Bethlehem

Advent Reflection: Through the Eyes of Rachel - Christmas in Bethlehem

December 2005

“Herod was furious when he learned that the wise men had outwitted him. He sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, because the wise men had told him the star first appeared to them about two years earlier. Herod’s brutal action fulfilled the prophecy of Jeremiah:

‘A cry of anguish is heard in Ramah-
weeping and mourning unrestrained,
Rachel weeps for her children,
Refusing to be comforted-
For they are dead.’”
– Matthew 2:16-18

The Church of the Nativity, where it is agreed that the birth of Jesus took place, is right “up the hill” from our apartment here in Bethlehem. The church, which actually houses three churches- Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Roman Catholic, has one special spot marked by a silver fourteen-point star marking the birthplace. People often kneel and pray there, touching and kissing this holy place. I remember the first time I saw it-in the presence of decorative linens, candles and the smell of incense, trying to remember the miracle that took place there-picturing the baby wrapped in common linens, probably light from a fire somewhere in the cave, and the smell of animals nearby. It’s difficult to wrap one’s mind around it all.

What was not so pronounced in my mind during my first visit, was when the guide pointed to the Tomb of the Innocents, holding many skeletons of babies that were found, most likely from the two-year-old and younger children who were killed at the hands of soldiers by the order of King Herod. But living here in Bethlehem, surrounded by the pain and suffering that is the daily reality for people here, this part of the story has taken on new meaning for me.

When I read this passage in Matthew, I consider the feelings of three people-Herod, Rachel, and the reader. What caused Herod to give such a horrendous order was his fury at being outsmarted, preceded by his fear of a new king and his greed for power. He was feeling threatened-so threatened that it resulted in a disregard for lives of hundreds, perhaps thousands of small babies.

Rachel represents all of the mothers who held the lifeless bodies of their babies. Their feelings of anguish run deep and are summed up in one word for me-devastation. I appreciated the way this anguish is described so bluntly in the Scriptures-“weeping and mourning unrestrained”…."refusing to be comforted." Any mother or father could probably sympathize with such feelings.

Then there is the reader. I wonder if many of us who read this part of the story every Christmas, read it somewhat quickly and relatively absent-minded to it’s meaning. Do we tend to view the death of these babies as “collateral damage” in the midst of the Miracle that came to save every human being? Does that justify it for us? The Scripture puts the anguish of Rachel in the context of the prophetic voice of Jeremiah being fulfilled. Perhaps we feel that it was “just meant to be” or perhaps even “all part of God’s plan.”

What would Rachel say to that? Would she yield herself to the idea that the God that she worshiped faithfully, who brought such a miracle of life to Mary, desired for her to experience this nightmare? Would she accept the paradox of the God of miraculous life being the God who simultaneously approved of baby murder? From what I read in the Scripture, I don’t think so.

Rachel has become a role model for me. My inspiration is largely found in the phrase “refusing to be comforted.” In fact, I think that she held so strongly to her belief that God is the God of Life, that when she found herself in the middle of the nightmare, she refused to take any comfort, even during the birth of the Prince of Peace, while she held in her arms the lifeless bodies of her children. She knew that this death was not from God, but a result of the fear, greed and the abused power of man.

And I wonder also, if years later, Jesus himself went to visit some of these women that Rachel represents, and wept with them, understanding that his birth brought them such grief. If Jesus walked through the Church of the Nativity today, where would he spend his time reflecting? If he were walking in Bethlehem now, what would he think of the circumstances? Would he say that the unemployment, the children in poverty, and the destruction of homes are all a part of God’s will?

Ironically, today in Bethlehem you will find many babies the age of three and younger, a result of the forty-day twenty-four hour curfew placed on Bethlehem when Israeli soldiers held it under siege in 2002. Destruction to the Church of the Nativity can still be seen from shelling of the soldiers upon Palestinian men taking refuge inside.

Christmas in Bethlehem has quite a different meaning than past Christmases. I can’t escape the devastating realities around me. I cannot ignore the pain simply because I’m celebrating the birth of Jesus – especially because I’m celebrating the birth of Jesus. Like Rachel, I’m refusing to take comfort when it comes to the devastation. But what I’m holding to more tightly than ever is my belief that God is a God of Life, and that he wills life for all people.

Christi Seidel
Co-Peace Development Worker
Mennonite Central Committee - Palestine


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