The baby Jesus is no sooner breathing than he has to go on the lam, hounded by rankest evil, his parents stealthing the child out of Bethlehem under the cover of darkness. No sooner does the least flicker of light happen, which is all this obscure infant Jesus amounts to so far, than evil comes hunting, doing its darkest to swallow even that slight glimmer. And then, miffed at being played the fool by the three kings he thought were fools, Herod launches a get-even preemptive slaughter of all males under two, just in case one of them should grow up with an attitude and a crown. Needless to say, from Herod’s real-politik view, there was no predicting what these cantankerous Jews might do some day, and one had to foresee for the worst.
Only Matthew mentions the run-for-his-life escape staged by Mary and Joseph, but he does so at some length, devoting the whole of his second chapter to playing out the machinations of the drama. The first chapter, more a prologue really, gives Jesus’ genealogy and a short run-up to the birth, skipping all the stuff about Mary and Joseph having to go to Jerusalem to pay taxes, angels and shepherds, etc. It’s as if Matthew wants to stick to the really important information, that salient cosmic stuff about the curious genealogy and the instruction to Joseph that everything with Mary was on the up-and-up. The first sentence of the second chapter matter-of-factly notes the birth in Bethlehem simply to situate it within sobering geo-political realities “during the reign of Herod.”
Herod’s name falls like a cleaver, given what follows. The alacrity with which he sets about tracking down the obscure infant king is breathtaking. What seems to loom large for Matthew is the urgent severity of the metaphysical contest between meekness and the unhesitating voraciousness of human power. The rest of the chapter lays out in stark, somber detail the lengths to which Herod resorts. And the toll is very great, his vehemence culminating in “massacre” and “wailing and loud laments.” Matthew quotes more of Jeremiah than necessary if he only wishes to signal the fulfillment of prophecy. Rather, he seems intent upon making sure that history duly reckons with the ways of evil: “it was Rachel weeping for her children, and refusing all consolation, because they were no more.”
Light does not happen without cost, and there is hardly a more somber comment in all of scripture. This is the hard yank into the real world–in this case, slaughter–not just for Him, but for a lot of bystanders, and for them there is no consolation “because they were no more.” The utter brutishness of it is beyond grasp, as unfathomable as those recent corporate barons who deploy their ill-got billions to swindle still more billions from the powerless–and that when they already have more than they and all their progeny could ever possibly spend. Such rapacity brings to mind the She-Wolf in Dante’s Inferno: “She tracks down all, kills all, and knows not glut,/ But, feeding, she grows hungrier than she was.”
The placement and length of the account seems to warn readers not to get too jolly too fast. A tough, even frightening realist about people, Matthew seems more than aware of the stupendous human wont to wallow in sentimental tripe about mangers, angel choirs, and sweet madonnas. And all the while, children die and mothers weep and there is no consolation. As Annie Dillard notes in Teaching a Stone to Talk, Christians in the West have not since the catacombs been particularly sensible of the peril and sorrow that still besets the world. Matthew pushes this point even harder with what follows: stories of John the Baptizer, the desert fasting, and then, finally, the radical spiritual demands of the Sermon on the Mount. This is not a tame sweet world, no matter how we wish it so. Over all, Matthew argues that darkness, as John warns, seems always on the brink of swallowing light whole, and we are blind fools if we forget it.
Epiphany is the season in the church year when the shock of the Truth seeps in–slowly, against the obdurate hardness of the world and self. Matthew’s narrative of slaughter seems intent upon insisting that amid the glad tidings we remember the readiness with which evil cudgels its way into even the most bright and hopeful moments. When that happens, then, well, it’s time to run for cover, or exile, or lament.