“Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wisemen, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wisemen” (Matt. 2:16).
I was 20 years old and full of sunny optimism about the world. And then I got off a bus outside of Munich at a spot named Dachau. Now a part of me will never smile again.
Yes, I will go to all the family Christmas celebrations this year, and I will sing the warm, sweet carols that lift our haggard hearts each December. And I will surely laugh to see some young relative of mine tear into his long-awaited gift. But a part of me will be looking past the tinsel and the lights and remembering a cold, cold day 25 years ago when I found the grave of innocence out beneath a pale Bavarian sky. Beside the young faces that crowd around our family tree, I will see another group of faces, each with dark, solemn eyes and hungry mouths. They are the children of Dachau, the children who never got a chance to grow up; the children who briefly looked at a camera lens 60 years ago before they took that final walk through the horrible avenues of death to where the crematorium glowed so brightly.
I have wondered sometimes how it would ever be possible to celebrate Christmas at Dachau. There are few evergreens on those bleak, snowy acres—nothing to decorate with lights and plastic ornaments and cheerful signs about peace on earth. Here at Hitler’s model concentration camp, how could one celebrate the birth of a child, especially a child born to Jewish parents, even if He was born 2,000 years ago? No, Christmas must skip Dachau each December. How can one sing of joy to the world behind the rows of rusting wire? There is nothing in those frozen acres that could even begin to make one merry. Out beneath a shroud of snow lies the grave of hundreds of unknown children, destroyed because the tyrant on his throne believed that they were a threat to the empire in his rotting hands.
It is an old story, as can be seen from the text in Matthew. What Hitler did to thousands of Jewish children out on the plains of Dachau 60 years ago is a horrendous echo of what Herod did to dozens of Jewish children on the hills of Bethlehem 20 centuries ago. And the story is no less horrible in the first century than that revulsion we all feel as we remember the evil of a generation ago. What kind of insanity stalks the halls of power so that despots and dictators always see the children as the greatest threat to them- selves? If the ink of history is really colored red, as some suggest, then it is the blood of innocent children that supplies that hue. And as I remember how bitterly I wept 25 years ago at Dachau, I can tell you that the tears again are not very far away.
And what has all of this to do with Christmas, you ask? Nothing . . . and everything. Nothing if the Christmas you celebrate this week is primarily a day for self-indulgent parties and mounds of sweet things and inflatable reindeer up on the rooftop. These thoughts of innocence destroyed are certainly foreign to you if the last month of your life has been one mad scramble to secure the perfect toy for an insatiable 5-year-old. But these solemn thoughts have everything to do with Christmas if you look beyond the papier-mâché crèches and the Christmas cards to remember that the Child whose birth we are celebrating was always a child at risk. He was a child whose earliest days were wrapped in danger and touched by sorrow. I hope the birth you celebrate this week is not the one described in the words of some greeting-card philosopher, but the birth described in the Word of God.
I recognize that it isn’t traditional to read the story of Herod’s murderousness at the Christmas season, for it casts a certain shadow over all our merrymaking. We usually end our Christmas readings with Matthew 2:12, which tells us that wise men were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and departed to their own country by another way. And in our festive mood we say, “Aha! Touché! Evil has been thwarted! Dumb old Herod is foiled again!”
But I remind you, my friends, that the Herods of this world are only rarely thwarted. And when they are, they take a revenge all out of proportion to their hurt. In the blindness of their fury, they strike at the heads nearest to them, whether those heads be large or small. And the story that first had us laughing at the impotence of evils ends with the wail of Rachel, weeping for her children, and refusing to be com- forted because they are not.
Never mistake it—there are men and women in this world who hate this holy Child whom we love, and who would stop at nothing to destroy both Him and His kingdom. There are Herods who fight against this Child who would gladly use the financial and political power in their hands to destroy anything that bears the name of Christ, if only the occasion permitted.
We forget what a threat this Child appears in their eyes. If Christ is successful in establishing His kingdom in the hearts of men and women, then the old, corrupt ways of doing things are doomed to be obsolete and useless. If the gospel ever truly penetrates to the heart of the business community, decisions will have to be made on the basis of compassion and caring, rather than on mere financial gain. If the story of this Child ever fully reaches into the halls of government, whole budgets and weapon systems will have to be scrapped. If the truth of Jesus Christ is ever planted in the halls of education, then both the old atheism of the past and the new paganism of the new millennium will appear as the foolish mumblings that they are. To all who make their livelihood by cheating and scheming and grasping for power and following cunningly devised fables, this Child appears to be a threat. And so both Christ and His true disciples will always be opposed and attacked and slandered in this world. We must come to expect it, even at Christmastime, even when the lights glow warmly and the choirs sing so sweetly.
We will certainly never know the full number of those children who died the night Jesus and His parents made their escape to Egypt. The broad, rough hand of evil came down on them and swept them away as easily as the wind moves the night mist. Notice again that evil is indiscriminate in its actions, while righteousness always exercises careful judgment. Herod would rather slaughter dozens of children than do the work necessary to find the one who truly threatened him. But on that day when the Almighty will judge the Herods and the Hitlers of this world, they will not be tried and found wanting as a group. No, God will see their individual sins. He will carefully review the awful records of their personal crimes. And their punishment will be meted out with all the anger that a righteous God feels for their own specific sins. God will not be careless; no, He will be so careful that the Herods and the Hitlers of this world will have to account for the life of every child they have taken.
In the gallery of my imagination, I see a picture from an old Bible story book of Joseph and Mary and the Child leaving by the back door of the house, even as the king’s soldiers are beginning to pound on the front door. Perhaps it wasn’t so close as that. Perhaps these three special persons, hardly yet a family, had traveled some miles beyond the town before the awful cry began to rise up in the night. Though they missed the tragedy in Bethlehem, they certainly didn’t miss the sorrow, for which of us as parents wouldn’t feel a terrible anguish and dread if we were commanded at a moment’s notice to take our little ones and run for our lives?
The Christians of the nineteenth century were familiar with a famous painting of Jesus as a boy in His father’s carpenter shop. As Jesus works at His father’s bench, the light coming through the window bars throws across His work the shadow of a cross. It suggests that even as a youth, Jesus was beginning to bear that awful burden. But this story makes it abundantly clear that Jesus began to wear that thorny crown of His long before the carpenter’s shop or Pilate’s judgment hall.
Though we are fond of saying that all the world loves a baby, let’s remember that before this baby was many days or months old, He was already despised and rejected, a Child of sorrows, and oh, so acquainted with grief. As the apostle John reminds us: “He came unto His own, and His own received Him not” (John 1:11). There was no room for His mother in the inn, and there was no room for Him in the whole land. And so to a heathen, foreign land this precious Child had to flee for His life.
This is the other side of the Christmas story, the darker side. It is perhaps the Bible’s antidote to all those fuzzy notions of worldwide peace and harmony that we entertain at this season of the year. When we hear of Christmas truces between government and guerrilla forces in Colombia, of Christmas recesses for bickering politicians on Capitol Hill, of Christmas goodwill gestures by the heads of atheistic governments, we are tempted to think that Christianity might succeed in this world without a struggle, or that evil can be overcome with a smile and a bottle of Coca-Cola. This story reminds us that where righteousness and evil meet, there will always be a conflict, and the conflict will last until one of them completely destroys the other. Thus, in the prophecy of Daniel 2, with which Adventists are so familiar, the stone that represents Christ’s kingdom doesn’t slowly grow alongside the statue that represents the world’s evil kingdoms. No, it smashes every evil system into dust, and rules in their place.
When Jesus entered this world as a helpless baby, the father of evil and all his earthly allies sought to destroy that baby, because they knew if they did not, that Child would one day destroy them and set up a kingdom of righteousness in the hearts of men and women. This is no gentleman’s disagreement of which we read in Scripture; This is a fight to the death. And at this season of the year we remember especially how unequal the struggle looked when Jesus was born.
All that evil could do to make His birth and His life miserable was done. Every circumstance that could be arranged to make His origin scandalous was arranged. Every instrument of terror that could be raised to threaten this Child was raised. Every bit of sorrow that could be thrown into His infancy was thrown in. Would it not be a sorrow to grow to adulthood knowing that you were the only one of dozens of male infants who escaped the edge of the sword? Would it not be a sorrow to know that even in your earliest moments of real thought, you were conscious of the hostility of an entire government? Would it not be a sorrow to live your life as a fugitive in a strange land, far from relatives and friends? Indeed, when we see all that evil had arrayed against Him, it’s all the more remarkable that this Lord of ours taught us a gospel of freedom, and trust, and confidence, and peace.
Yes, above all else, this Child was certainly at risk. There was danger in the physical circumstances of His birth. We remember that it was no gleaming maternity ward into which He was born, but instead, a dirty cowshed. There was danger to His life from the hand of the bloodthirsty king. And there was the danger that all of these things would cause Him to be an anxious, fearful, insecure man, and not the confident, loving Lord of life. If the devil had been allowed to paint the entire history of the Messiah’s life, he couldn’t have begun it in a darker shade.
But the good news this Christmas season, and every Christmas season, is the truth recorded in the first chapter of John’s Gospel, and it is this: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (verse 5, RSV). When we add up all the forces of dark- ness arrayed against this Child, in our human wisdom we would have fully expected that the light would have been overcome by the darkness. And so the wonder, the miracle of Christmas, isn’t only that a Child has been born to us, but that this special, precious Child in fact survived all the machinations of hell to live as our example and finally lay down His life as our substitute.
Christmas reminds us each year that Jesus is always a surprise to us—a surprise in that He cared enough to come; a surprise in that He humbled Himself to the form of a servant and a child; a surprise in that He placed all that He had at risk for our sakes at His birth; a surprise in that He surrendered His life for our sakes at His death. When Christmas ceases to surprise us with the amazing love of Jesus, then we had best give up the holiday. When we are more intrigued with what lies beneath the wrapping paper than with the Child who lay beneath the star, we would do better to cross December 25 off our calendars. To those well-meaning individuals who every year lamely urge us to “put Christ back in Christmas,” I respond, “How could you even think of celebrating it without Him?”
The joy we wish each other at this Christmas season is not the joy of innocence. I think we have all traveled too far in this world to be capable of that, anyway. The joy we wish each other is the joy that overcomes pain and struggle and tears and heartache as surely as the light overcomes the darkness.
May you have the joy of finding the Child who is still despised and rejected by the proud and mighty of this world, the joy of taking this Child into your life and sheltering Him as best you can against the evil one. May you have joy of being the modern wise men and wise women who have the discernment to recognize in this helpless Babe your Savior and your God.
In the midst of all the tinsel and the lights and music this Christmas, con- sider the Child who reached out to grasp the bitter cup before His fingers could hold anything else, who drained the cup of human sorrow from His earliest moments. When you have seen the depths of this Child’s love and compassion, you will follow Him anywhere, even though He is a Child at risk.
BillKnottistheeditor and executive publisher of the Adventist Review. This article first appeared in the December 25, 2003.