It’s terrifying to attract the attention of a king.
Especially a king like Herod.
I don’t blame our visitors. Strangers from Persia, it’s no wonder they didn’t know who they were dealing with when they went to Jerusalem asking to see the new born king of the Jews.
They couldn’t have known what lengths Herod would go to maintain his power. This is a man who had his sons murdered. Who ordered the death of his most beloved wife because he was afraid of her schemes to put one of her sons on his throne.
The throne he held courtesy of the Romans. For he was no Jew. He was not in the line of David. Hearing that there was a king born in the line of David must have terrified him.
I admit it. I was naïve too. The danger in the angel’s words never occurred to me. “Son of the Most High, God will give him the throne of David” – how did I miss in those words the challenge to the powers that be! I guess I just thought that God would keep us hidden from notice until Jesus was old enough to reign. It’s hard to think of swords and blood and death when you’re feeling that first kick, when you’re consumed by labor pains, when your newborn nestles in your arms.
But there were swords and blood and death. As we fled to safety, warned by angels, soldiers devastated Bethlehem. How many dead? How many mothers and fathers died protecting their children? How many men gave their lives in a vain attempt to fight off this invasion of their homes? Had the soldiers crept quietly into town and tore people from their beds, herding them into the center of the village like so much cattle to be slaughtered?
All because one small family attracted the attention of a terrifying king!
I had a lot of time to think on that long journey to Egypt. We would find a welcome in one of the Jewish communities on the banks of the Nile, far away from the reach of this deadly king. Egypt meant safety for us.
The irony was not lost on me. We were fleeing to Egypt. Odd that this place of safety for us is the same place of slavery and danger we remember each Passover. There was a terrifying king then too – a king who feared Hebrew babies enough to send soldiers to rip them from their mother’s arms as soon as they were born. It was a land of swords and blood and death that we left behind for the land God promised to us. And now, Joseph and I, to save our son, are fleeing the Promised Land, desperately trying to outrun death.
The news of the massacre caught up to us on the road. I fell to my knees at the news, crying out in anguish. I thought of the women I chatted with at the well every morning, of their toddlers playing next to Jesus as we talked together, worked together, relaxed together. My family! My friends!
I clutched Jesus close to me as I cried – as if I could protect him from danger and tragedy. And I wept, for the children, just as Rachel wept for her children as they went into exile.
The sorrow followed us. We lived quietly in Egypt. We were safe, but for how long? The sound of soldier’s feet sent me scurrying to grab my son, to hide him once again. Joseph was careful - traveling to a far off city each time we needed to exchange Magi gold for the smaller coins peasants like us could be expected to have. We never talked about Bethlehem, saying we were from Nazareth. It was true, even if it hid the terrible truth.
We never talked about angels, or dreams, or shepherds, or Magi. Except very late at night when we could whisper in each other’s ear, confident that Jesus was safely asleep, and there were no other listening ears to betray our secret.
Finally, Joseph had another dream. Herod was dead and it was safe to return. I dreaded it. How could we go back to our home in Bethlehem, with our strong little boy, knowing that the children he once played beside were dead? It was a relief when Joseph told me about another dream, instructing us that the danger was not past- Herod’s son was just as terrifying as his father – and we should return to Nazareth instead.
It was a relief, filled with dread. Is this what our life will be like? Always looking over our shoulder for danger?
It’s been quiet since we returned to Nazareth. Of course, Nazareth has always been a quiet village. Slowly, we have relaxed our guard, let go of our fears. It’s only late at night, when I dream about Bethlehem’s children, that I relive the terror. And I fear for him. What will happen when he is old enough to claim his throne?
Last Sabbath, the portion read in synagogue was from the prophet Jeremiah - the same words that came to me when I first heard the terrible news from Bethlehem – Rachael weeping for her children for they are no more. That day, prostrate in the dust, crying inconsolably, I could not remember the rest of the prophet’s words: Thus says the LORD: Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work, says the LORD: they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future, says the LORD: your children shall come back to their own country.
I looked from the women’s section over to my son, worshiping next to Joseph. Hope for the future – that’s what God has promised. That’s what this boy fast becoming a man will bring – hope for the future.
For now, he is the living, breathing proof that God had not forgotten us, that God is with us today.
It is enough.