“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”
Today is the Feast of Holy Innocents, or Childermas Day. We commemorate the Slaughter of the Innocents, the New Testament’s signature atrocity carried out when Herod the Great sought to eliminate a threat to his throne by engineering the murder of Bethlehem’s baby boys. Matthew’s gospel links this with a quotation from the prophet Jeremiah; it’s a familiar reading simply because of its connection to a familiar story. But what’s Matthew getting at here?
The key is the reference to Rachel. The wife of the patriarch Jacob, she died in childbirth in the region between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, with the region eventually becoming known as Ramah. Later in Israel’s history, Ramah became one of the places from which the Jews were taken into exile in Babylon – that’s the context of the original passage from Jeremiah, in which Rachel is the personification of the land weeping over her children being exiled, not killed. Matthew appropriates Jeremiah’s words to express the horror of Herod’s actions.
That’s all very interesting, but it’s not really the point, is it? The truth is, the Slaughter of the Innocents isn’t an isolated incident, an act of archetypal horror that exists within the pages of the gospel as an example of pure evil. No, we see the innocent slaughtered on a regular occurrence.
When I was 15, I visited Israel on a school trip. We went to the Yad Veshem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. In it was a hall filled with photos of children, all of whom had been gassed or shot or starved by the Nazis. You can’t walk through that room without hearing the weeping of Rachel. It echoes down the years: Dunblane, Sandy Hook, Columbine, Rwanda, Aleppo, child refugees. The Slaughter of the Innocents is a totemic example of the horrors we unleash upon children, not a one-off atrocity; Jesus was born in the midst of a world of destruction and death, was forced into hiding because of it.
So today we remember all the sins against the world’s children; maybe we need to pledge to work more actively against that. Maybe we need to reconsider how we vote, or how we spend money. Maybe we need to consider where we go to church, or if we’re willing to financially support denominations that aren’t proactively acting against child abuse. Maybe this Christmastide we need to awaken to the reality of the Slaughter of the Innocents and commit to responding with urgency whenever it threatens to recur in our own day and age.