Hahn: It’s the most (not so) wonderful time of the year
Published 10:00 am Friday, December 14, 2018
It’s no secret that for a lot of people, the holiday season, and Christmas especially, is not the most wonderful time of the year.
A loved one now gone, a relationship or job lost, painful memories, declining health or any one of a number of other reasons leaves many folks hurting instead of singing during the holidays.
Even Elvis himself sang about a blue Christmas.
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Sometimes the merry music and bright lights magnify, not resolve, feelings of loneliness, grief and doubt.
Believing that to be true, I did something on a Sunday morning last Christmas I had never done in more than 31 years of ministry.
I preached on this Bible text: “When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: ‘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,’” Matthew 2:16-18.
The sermon identified three mothers mentioned in the Christmas story: Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist; Mary, mother of Jesus (the best known mother in the Bible); and these mothers of Bethlehem in Matthew 2, collectively referred to as Rachel.
Elizabeth and Mary have in front of them wonderful months and years of cuddling with and raising their little boys.
Rachel is weeping and refuses to be comforted.
Historians have calculated the approximate population of Bethlehem and, therefore, the approximate number of little boys who were killed, but the number, probably six to 20, isn’t the point.
A horrible, senseless and awful atrocity was forced upon the mothers of Bethlehem by a paranoid, deranged ruler.
I can’t think of anything more difficult than losing a child. The hardest funerals I preach are for children. And the grief of a mother over the loss of her child is the hardest of all human emotions and experiences.
Last year, as I preached this sermon, I scanned the congregation and my eyes caught those of a mother whose child I laid to rest years ago.
I broke down for a moment and wondered if I’d made a big mistake preaching that sermon.
Mostly I love to preach and wouldn’t trade it for anything but sometimes it’s really, really hard.
Something I wasn’t expecting happened on Monday morning. I opened up my inbox and there was an email from another mother who lost a child and who listened to me preach that sermon. I never knew.
And then Wednesday afternoon, I received a card in the mail from yet another mother who lost a child that I didn’t know about. Both thanked me for identifying and affirming their hurt during the Christmas season.
I’m guessing that only by telling this side of the Christmas story, a side we like to ignore, can we offer comfort and hope to the Rachels of the world that include grieving mothers but also a lot of other people who deal with incredible grief and rejection during the holiday season.
Ken Langley, a preacher in Illinois, makes what I think is a profound statement and I offer it to the Rachels reading this who are hurting, not singing, this Christmas: “The only boy to escape Herod is the only one who can comfort Rachel.”
Through the swift action of his father, Joseph, Jesus is able to escape Herod’s sword and his mother, Mary, doesn’t have to weep. At least not yet.
The story of Rachel weeping goes back to centuries before the time of Jesus, actually to two historically different, but similar accounts, and the second one builds on the first and they both become a metaphor, as well as a prophecy about, Herod’s action just after the birth of Jesus.
Rachel in the Old Testament, the wife of Jacob, was one of the matriarchs of Israel. On the road to Bethlehem she dies in childbirth and with her dying breath she names her baby boy, Ben-oni, which means “Son of my sorrow.”
But Jacob changes the boy’s name to Benja-min which means, “Son of my right hand.” The name change was better, no doubt, for Benjamin, but it kind of silences the dying mother’s voice. She was buried alongside the road near Bethlehem.
A thousand years later, Jeremiah watches Rachel’s offspring trudging into exile down that very same road where she is buried. After a siege in which many starve and many more fall to the sword, the victorious Babylonian army now dragged Jews off to Ramah, a holding camp where they were chained for the long march north to Babylon.
Jeremiah wrote: “A voice is heard in Ramah, Rachel weeping inconsolably for her lost children (Jeremiah 31:15).”
Jeremiah uses Rachel as the poster child for the grief of the nation. And then, another 600 years later, Matthew quotes Jeremiah in reference to this part of the Christmas story. Herod gives yet another generation reason to mourn. Seems Bethlehem — like some of us — has a history of rejection and grief.
If we’re honest we all wonder why those things have to be part of life, especially to the extent of the slaughter of innocent babies and mothers who have to grieve uncontrollably. It seems like in every generation, down through the corridors of time, there are Rachels who are weeping. And last year when I preached that sermon, I looked into the faces of at least three of them, probably more.
I wish I had an answer to the “why” question and even more I wish I had a button on my computer I could press that would make hurting people feel better especially during Christmas. Maybe some day?
In the meantime, it can’t be overlooked that, against the backdrop of a horrible event in the Christmas story, God doesn’t watch it from 1,000 miles away and say, “I’m praying for you. Call me if you need me.”
Instead, in Jesus, He steps into the chaos and the mayhem and the pain and the grief and the questions and stands with us and suffers and hurts with us.
I find great comfort in that.
The Thursday before the Sunday I preached that sermon was the first day of the winter solstice and as such it was the longest, single dark period of the year. Sometimes, Christmas time is a pretty dark time in more ways than one.
There will always be a dark side to Christmas (and life), but the only boy to escape Herod is the only one who can comfort Rachel.
Forrest Hahn is pastor of Christview Christian Church. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.