By Robert C. Shannon
I hear voices every Christmas—two voices.
I hear the voice of an angel singing, and I hear the voice of a woman crying. The first was as real as your voice or mine. The second is a figure of speech, a metaphor. The first speaks of great joy. The second speaks of great sorrow. The first is familiar. The second is largely forgotten. The first is the voice of the angel who appeared to the shepherds near Bethlehem. The second also comes from Bethlehem: “Rachel, weeping for her children” (Matthew 2:18).
We don’t know much about angels, but we know a little. We know angel means “messenger” and the idea is that of a heavenly messenger. The word has not been translated in our English Bible. We know that angels serve God in Heaven and on earth. We know they are neither male nor female. We know that they announce great events. We know some are continually about the throne of God and others are doing his work on earth.
We know a little about Rachel. We know she was the beloved wife of Jacob. We know that the seven years he worked to earn the bride price seemed to him but a few days because of his great love for her (Genesis 29:20). Childless for years, she finally gave birth to a son, Joseph. When they returned to Canaan she gave birth to a second son, Benjamin, but she died in childbirth. She died on the road to Bethlehem! To this very day childless women come to her tomb to pray.
When Jeremiah considered how God’s people had been treated brutally by the Babylonians he spoke poetically of Rachel, weeping from her tomb, weeping for her children. If Jeremiah were alive today, would he not compare it to the abortions performed so widely and thoughtlessly and in his mind hear again Rachel weeping for her children? When Matthew reported Herod’s massacre of innocent babies at Bethlehem, he thought he could hear Rachel, weeping for her children.
How different were these two events recorded in Matthew’s gospel? One is about birth and one is about death. In the events recorded by Matthew, the birth caused the death, as it did in the case of Rachel. Both mothers had completed a long and difficult journey made all the more difficult by pregnancy. In both cases the births and deaths occurred at Bethlehem.
We must not make too much of that. Surely it is coincidence. The juxtaposition of these events is not intended to teach us anything—but it does make them memorable and is poetically moving.
The two events evoked two songs. To be precise, we are never told that the angel sang—but it sounds like a song to us, and across the centuries we have always thought of it as a song. So the lament of Rachel is never identified as a song, but surely in some sense it was a song, or very much like a song.
The angel’s song is not a sad song. Someone wrote about the Irish:
A strange folk are the Irish.
I think they must be mad;
For all their wars are merry
And all their songs are sad.
Not all Irish songs are sad, but many are. Not all earth’s songs are sad, but many of them are as well. None of Heaven’s songs are sad. We read about them in the book of Revelation. They are songs of praise, thanksgiving, and victory.
Both events involve a journey. The angel traveled from a heavenly home to a distant planet. Rachel traveled from a distant land to her husband’s ancestral home. It would have been her home too, had she survived. One is leaving home and one is going home.
We have to use our imagination here. Imagine the angel sent by God to a distant and insignificant planet, to visit an insignificant town, and to sing to insignificant people. Don’t you suppose the pasture fields at Bethlehem contrasted poorly with the pearly gates of Heaven?
Doesn’t it make you think of Jesus himself, trading the gold streets of Heaven for the dusty lanes of earth? Trading the praise of angels for the jeers of men? It brings us to the consideration of two worlds.
The account of the massacre of the babies had to be told. It happened, and it had to be reported. But did it have to be placed here in the middle of this beautiful account of a beautiful event? We never read this Scripture at Christmas—and with good reason. But here it is staring us in the face.
Once I conducted a funeral on Christmas Eve for a child murdered by a playmate. For the first time I understood why the account of the massacre was included in the Christmas story. It had always seemed to be a painful intrusion into a lovely story. If it had to be told, why not put it in some other place? Why spoil the beautiful story of the baby in the manger with the brutal story of the massacre?
The day I preached that funeral I understood why it was there. Matthew 2:18 was my text that day. It tells us that Jesus came into a real world. He did not come into a storybook world where everybody lives happily ever after. He came into a world like ours where there is cruelty and brutality and senseless tragedy. He came into our world so that we might someday go to his world—where there is no brutality, where there is no sorrow, and where there are no tears.
In the meantime, we travel along a road we cannot always predict. Rachel thought her journey would end in the home of her husband’s family. Instead it ended along the side of the road near Bethlehem. Our life’s journey does not always end where we expected, or when we expected, or how we expected. Sometimes it is a long journey—longer than we expected. But in the larger sense we do know where our journey will end. If we are believers, it will be a journey home.
Meanwhile, we continue to travel through a world that is seldom safe, often dangerous, and frequently sad. But on our journey we have the option of choosing which song will prevail—the sad song or the glad song. And when we join our voices, we have the option of choosing which song we will sing most often. All of us must sometimes sing the sad song. All of us can choose to sing most often the glad song: “Joy to the World! The Lord is come!”
Robert C. Shannon is a retired minister and freelance writer living in Valle Crucis, North Carolina.
Joy and Sadness
Holidays are bittersweet times. They can evoke deep happiness and dredge up bitter grief. The Bible is not shy about how these feelings can appear simultaneously, but our culture tends to focus only on the positive.
In what ways do you feel both ends of the emotional spectrum at Christmas?
Is there anyone you know who may be facing sorrow this season?
How can you compassionately apply biblical truth and comfort to your own wounds and the pain of those around you?