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Rachel Weeps for Her Children: A Christmas Message

Pastor Julie

Lully, lula, thou little tiny child/ by by lully lulay. Coventry Carol, verse 1

I used to think this song, the Coventry Carol, was simply a lullaby Mary sang to Jesus

A satisfied baby at the breast without a care in the world.

But this carol actually describes a much different reality.

It comes from the Pageant of the Shearman and Tailors,

A 16th century play which focuses on Herod’s cruel slaughter of thousands of innocent children In order to protect his throne.

This song was sung by the women of Bethlehem

Right before Herod’s soldiers came in to kill their babies.

Herod the king in his raging, charged he hath this day/ His men of might in his own sight, all young children to slay. v 2

And so now when I hear this song, I cannot help but think of those mothers in our Gospel story Putting their children to sleep

Trying to put their children at ease

Praying their suffering would be as light as possible

Loving them, holding them one last time…

The pain, the pathos of these mothers of Bethlehem, all wrapped up in these words of this old carol:

That woe is me, poor child for thee! And ever morn and day/ For thy parting neither say nor sing by by, lully, lullay. v 3

Oh, we do not want to hear the sound of mourning at Christmas!

We do not want to hear Jeremiah’s prophecy of exile and suffering, or Rachel weeping for her children. We want to immerse ourselves in the sound of the angel choir In trumpet fanfare In the laughter of children

Is this not a time of joy and peace on earth?

Why is this story of the slaughter of the innocents included?

But because it is included, we need to consider the possibility

that perhaps this crying, this danger, this violence is also what Christmas is about.

Jesus was born into the real world, you know:

The real world of power struggles, of corrupt governments, of state sponsored terrorism.

Herod the Great, King of the Jews, was a tyrant with a paranoid streak.

His hit list of those who were eliminated because they were a threat was long:

He killed two brothers in law, his own wife Mariamne, and two of his sons.

The day before his death he arrested many citizens and ordered them to be executed upon his death So that a proper atmosphere of mourning would be observed.

Herod ruled with an iron fist—

There were many executions, public meetings were illegal

And his spies were everywhere.

Since Jesus entered the world amid strife and terror he had to spend his infancy in hiding.

He and his family went to Egypt as refugees fleeing violence.

If you’ve ever had to uproot and move, you know what a challenge it is.

But Jesus and his family had to move on the spur of the moment, with no planning.

Like so many displaced families of the world, they left everything behind.

When Jesus and his family arrived in Egypt, they had nothing with them and nowhere to stay.

Finally when Herod died, politics again played a role in where Jesus lived.

He returned to Israel, but not to Bethlehem where Herod’s son Archelaus was.

Instead Jesus and his family moved to Nazareth in the north

Where they might be out of harm’s way.

At every turn Jesus lived in the harsh realities of danger, homelessness

Political instability and the innocent victims of violence.

Do the realities of Jesus’ life sound familiar?

I think about the mothers that lost children in the wars in our times,

And mothers fleeing with their families to escape violence.

I think of mothers who have lost children to gun violence and drug overdose.

I think of mothers who have lost children to poverty or hopelessness or despair.

These mothers know the pain of the words of the Coventry carol.

They know the weeping of Rachel.

Jesus is our link to these children and these mothers.

The Gospel of Luke recounts that Simeon the prophet told Mary that “a sword will pierce your heart, too.”

His words foreshadowed Jesus’ mission on earth and the pain it would bring his mother

Who, like every mother, wished only the best for her son.

For while Jesus escaped the slaughter this time in Bethlehem,

His life would end in Jerusalem the same way that those little babies of Bethlehem died:

With state sanctioned murder.

One of the implications of the incarnation is that God chose the circumstances in which to enter the world.

God could have chosen to appear in the household of the powerful where Jesus would be safe.

God could have commanded the angels to protect Jesus at all times,

Like the psalm says, “They will bear you up lest you dash your foot against a stone.”

But God chose to enter our real world

The world where Rachel weeps and mothers sing “by by lully lullay.”

In the incarnation, God became one of us in all the pain and suffering that comes with it

And in the crucifixion, God chose to suffer to triumph over suffering forever.

That’s why it’s important that this story about the killing of the Bethlehem children is included in scripture.

If Jesus only made a difference for the good times of life,

Then much of our lives would be untouched by his healing and grace.

But Jesus did join those who die an innocent death.

He threw his lot in with the suffering.

For Jesus came not only with angel choir to rejoice with us,

But also and most importantly to be with us in our most dire hour.

My friends, crying, danger, and violence are all part of the real world—our world.

Hearing this Christmas text calls us to let Jesus be born into our lives

Calls us to let Jesus enter our weeping.

But perhaps even more, this story calls us to enter into the weeping of others.

In our healing prayer, we lift up our own struggles and sufferings, as well as those of others

In our prayer today we can remember the Rachels of the world

And share in the hope that those torn and in pain will ultimately be mended in Christ Jesus.

Rachel is weeping.

But God’s reign is coming, and is now here, where every tear is wiped away.

Let us all, this day, be a part of this peace and these good tidings that the Christ child brings.


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