The Bible gives us two accounts of Jesus’s birth. The Gospel of Luke tells us about Gabriel’s visit to Mary, the manger where Jesus was placed, and the angel’s announcement to shepherds in fields just outside of Bethlehem, while Matthew includes Joseph’s angel dreams, the arrival of the wise men, and Herod’s murderous plot to destroy the newborn King of the Jews. And because we have two separate but true accounts, it’s been the task of every Bible reader down through the centuries to put the pieces together.
At times, we’ve gotten things wrong. That’s why, for example, our nativity scenes typically have the wise men showing up to greet Jesus on the night He was born, maybe even crossing paths with the shepherds. But Matthew’s Gospel portrays the wise men as arriving some two years later (Matthew 2:2,7,16). Our hymnals tell us the wise men were “three kings,” but the Bible never gives them royal status, and while they came with three gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—we don’t actually know how many magi there were (Matthew 2:11).
As much as we don’t know about these wise men, their presence made a big impact on the world. They were the first Gentiles to recognize Jesus for who He was: “Falling to their knees, they worshiped him” (Matthew 2:11). But their presence also changed the lives of several families in the village of Bethlehem. The wise men arrived on Herod’s doorstep with news of a star and a newborn King, and Herod’s response was jealousy, paranoia, and rage, culminating in the murder of innocent children.
Christmas is supposed to be a time of “peace on earth” (Luke 2:14), but for those mothers and fathers who were left in immeasurable pain at the cruel loss of their children, I’m certain it seemed anything but peaceful. Joseph was warned in a dream to take Mary and Jesus, and flee to Egypt, but no such warning dream came to other parents. Their children were not spared from Herod’s hatred.
As I read this familiar passage from the Christmas story, I can’t help but remember that these Bethlehemites are not alone in their grief. Children still die, marriages still end, and poverty still weighs heavily on much of the world. Two thousand years after Jesus’s arrival, we have no shortage of reasons to weep, even as we recognize the joys of Christmas. Turning the calendar to December doesn’t silence the pain; in many ways, it only exacerbates it.
I don’t know why the slaughter of the innocents is a part of the Christmas story. It doesn’t seem to belong there. But I do know that it is precisely for this type of evil that Jesus was born. “The Son of God was revealed for this purpose: to destroy the devil’s works” (1John 3:8). And in the end, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; grief, crying, and pain will be no more, because the previous things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
I don’t have all the answers I’d like when it comes to questions about suffering and loss, but I do have one: our stories are headed to a place where even the most broken and battered will find comfort, hope, and newness of life. And it’s all because of Christmas.
Written by John Greco