Christmas is a magical time of year. Gifts under the tree, choirs singing alleluia, friends and family stopping by, lots of cookies (yum!) and kids giddy with excitement. Even the adjectives are super-sized: merrily on high, most wonderful, joyful and triumphant, royal beauty bright, glory in the highest!
I love the Christmas story. Even if you are not a Christian, you can appreciate the magnitude, the wonder, of a tiny babe born in a manger who is the son of God. Over the years, the story has become both mythic and homogenized, the stuff of children’s pageants, Charlie Brown specials and animated movies. Sure, Mary and Joseph have no money, so they have to camp out in a barn; but the shepherds and wise men still find them, and the angels still proclaim glad tidings.
One of my favorite contemporary Christmas songs is “All is Well” by Michael W. Smith. “All is well, all is well,” he proclaims. “Angels and men rejoice/For tonight darkness fell/Into the dawn of love’s light/Sing A-le/Sing Alleluia.”
Like the little boy in the Christmas classic The Polar Express, you have to believe—believe in something that you can neither prove nor disprove. It’s the beauty, the mystery, the spirit that lifts and transforms us in this season of wonder and awe. So much so, that we can say, “All is well, all is well/Let there be peace on Earth.”
And yet, there is one part of the Christmas story that I don’t like. It’s a part that has always bothered me. It’s like a jagged piece of broken glass that cuts deep into your finger, or a pipe bomb that explodes in a crowded marketplace. You won’t hear it in a Christmas song or see it depicted in a Christmas play, and yet it’s there at the end—a shocking coda that is terrible to comprehend.
It’s in Matthew 2:16, where the writer says, “Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men.”
We don’t know how many baby boys Herod murdered; in fact, we don’t know for sure if it happened since Matthew is the only writer who reports it. We do know from history that Herod was a mad man who killed his own sons and wife. And we know that Matthew’s telling fulfills the prophecy in Jeremiah of wailing and loud lamentation in Ramah—Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be consoled “because they were no more” (Matt. 2:18).
Contrast Rachel’s uncontrollable weeping and wailing with the peacefulness of the manger where “all is calm, all is bright,” and you have to wonder: what’s going on here? It doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t conform to our Disneyesque view of Christmas!
That’s because Christ’s birth is not a fairy tale. We tend to forget that he was born into a particular time and place, that he was dropkicked into a mess of hurt and suffering. There was evil and fear then, just as there is now.
When we get to the beginning of John, the fourth Gospel, we learn the significance of Jesus’ birth on a cosmic scale: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:4-5)
Our world is nasty, brutish and imperfect, yet the Christ child came into our midst. Was it disruptive? You bet. Did everyone receive the news with joy? No. Perhaps Matthew’s description of the Massacre of the Innocents, as it is sometimes called, is a sign of things to come, a foreshadowing of the other great Christian story of death and resurrection.
By describing the here and now of Bethlehem, and the consequences of Jesus’ coming, Matthew makes Christmas more than just a happy-ending story. The light of God needs substance, a presence to make it flesh and blood and relevant. Matthew gives us that presence, a reality check that forces us to sit up and say, “This is serious. I need to pay attention.”
Christmastime this year is just as real, just as relevant and just as jagged as it was in Jesus’ time. We have our own Herods, our own forms of madness and unspeakable cruelty that must be overcome. Christmas 2015 has as its backdrop mass shootings, terrorism, oppression, racism and poverty. The good news is that the seeds of love that one man planted over 2,000 years ago are still being planted today. His light still shines, and it cannot be extinguished.
So do I believe that it’s “the most wonderful time of the year”? Of course I do, but I also think that we must work hard to keep the spirit of Christmas alive in our hearts and in our actions all year long. It’s a story we must be willing to write anew each day if we truly want its ending to be a happily-ever-after one.