Violence in the Christmas Story

Did you know that it’s still Christmas? Many people think “the 12 days of Christmas” refers to 12 days leading up to Christmas. But in reality, Christmas starts Christmas Day and lasts 12 days until Epiphany.


So, it’s January, but Merry Christmas!


We know that the wise men from the East arrive in Jerusalem, looking for the child whose star they’ve been following. They visit Jesus and bring him little gifts (Matthew 2:1-12). What a lovely story!


But have you ever read the rest of this story?


The wise men first meet Herod and describe the child they're seeking as "king of the Jews." That threatens Herod’s power. The verses that come next describe Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod’s fear and rage. The Gospel of Matthew tells us:


[Herod] sent and killed all the [male] children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. (Matthew 2:16)

This tells me two somewhat surprising things:


First: the wise men visited Jesus a year or two after his birth.


I used to picture the wise men showing up at that famous manger where God incarnate was first lain.


But based on their report to Herod about the appearance of the star, Herod kills all of Bethlehem’s boy children under two years old. That means Jesus could be two in this story.


Did the wise men visit a crawling Jesus? A toddling Jesus? Did Jesus babble each of their names in his earliest imitation of language? Meditating on each of these images is delightful to me.


But second: there is unspeakable violence as part of the Christmas story.


Yes, Jesus escapes Herod’s violent attack on the children of Bethlehem. But how many children are slaughtered in this part of the Christmas story? What did it do to the people of Bethlehem—the birthplace of God into human flesh—to have two years’ worth of boy children just… gone?


The part of the Christmas story that we tell on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day is lovely. It’s a cozy story of angels and shepherds and one family growing a little bit bigger. Maybe it makes us feel nostalgic for the many other times we’ve heard it. Hopefully it helps us understand God in a unique way.


But Jesus’ birth isn’t the end of this story. Jesus is born into a fallen world—a world we still inhabit and have to figure out how to navigate faithfully.


The hope of Christmas isn’t that everything is perfect now. The hope of Christmas is that even in the depths of our fallenness, we receive Emmanuel: “God with us.”