“A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
Today marks the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the commemoration of the children killed by the rage of King Herod as he was seeking the Christ-child (Matt. 2:16-18). It is always jarring to read about the death of the Holy Innocents right there in the gospel’s infancy narrative and to celebrate their feast three short days after Christmas. But Christ was born into a world of acute suffering (what is worse than the loss of a child?) precisely in order to bring relief to those who are mourning. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4).
Without this dark backdrop, we might be tempted to believe the sanitized, sentimentalized picture of the Nativity that a culture with a thin (and thinning) veneer of Christianity offers up to us: “But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” But Jesus wept. And Rachel wept for her children and refused to be comforted through half-measures. Comfort only comes on the far side of sorrow. No one is exempt from this. Not even innocent children. Not even the Holy Family.
The death of the Holy Innocents paints in striking colors the sharp contrast between the kingdoms of the world and the kingdom of heaven inaugurated by Christ. The one is marked by self-preserving power. The other by self-sacrificial weakness. The one is ensconced in the halls of worldly power. The other is on the run, on the pilgrim trail to Egypt and back again through the wilderness and only then to the Promised Land.
The Old Testament text that St Matthew cites as a kind of prophetic advance of this bloody scene is Jeremiah 31:15:
Thus says the LORD:
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.”
Ramah was the site of a shrine to the matriarch Rachel. The Israelites in Babylonian captivity saw in Rachel’s weeping for her children a fitting picture of their own sorrow in exile. But the Lord doesn’t leave them comfortless. His response to their weeping is a promise: “they shall come back from the land of the enemy” (Jer. 31:16). And just a few short verses later, we learn the source of this great comfort in the Mount Everest of all Old Testament promises: the promise of a New Covenant.
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:31-34).
The only time the gospels use this precise phrase, “new covenant,” is set in another bloody context: at the Last Supper, when Jesus, facing his impeding passion and death, passes the cup to his disciples and declares, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). Comfort for the weeping doesn’t come cheap in some hackneyed platitude that “this too shall pass.” No, comfort is purchased at the price of blood.
Another Herod would eventually catch up to Jesus. Indeed, Jesus willingly gave himself over to him (John 10:18). Herod laughed on that day and Jesus mourned (Luke 23:11). But the rulers of this world did not know that the one whom they mocked was the Lord of glory (1 Cor. 2:8). They didn’t see the great reversal of the last day that would be proleptically brought into this present age on the third day, the eighth day, the first day of a new creation. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh…Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep” (Luke 6:21, 25).
Comfort is coming for those who weep, even for those who weep over lost children. Or lost fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, spouses and friends. Or lost jobs or lost dreams or lost innocence. In Christ, all that is lost will be found, all that is taken will be restored. That’s the lesson the Holy Innocents leave to us, these “buds, killed by the frost of persecution the moment they showed themselves” (Augustine). We all, like Rachel, will find ourselves in moments where we “refuse to be comforted.” But comfort doesn’t depend upon us. We, like the Holy Innocents, find ourselves in the crosshairs of a cosmic battle of kingdoms. But the decisive victory has already been won. Comfort comes not in the form of cheap sentimentality. The New Covenant promises–forgiveness, internal transformation, the knowledge of God, union with God–come sealed in blood, and the Holy Innocents foreshadow this.