The soldiers were coming! In the early morning darkness, the parents grabbed what they could, packing as quickly and quietly as possible, not expecting they would ever be able to return. Whatever they couldn’t pack or carry would be lost and they had to carry whatever they needed to survive on the run. They had a little money and a few valuable possessions they might be able to sell but they would never receive what they were really worth. If they could make it to the border they might be safe but they couldn’t afford to wonder how they might be received in the neighbouring nation.
As the husband packed their meagre possessions together, he kept urging his wife to hurry. “The soldiers are coming!” he whispered again to his already frantic wife. The infant child was wrapped to keep him warm against the cool night air and the couple did one more look around the bare room to see what they had forgotten. This was not a time for sentiment but the wife-and-mother paused for just a moment. This had been their first home as a family and she expected they would never see it again.
The village seemed unusually quiet as they stepped out the door after extinguishing the light. Sticking to the shadows, they were soon out of the village and less concerned about being quiet, more concerned about travelling as quickly as possible. By daylight, they were well away from the village but exposed to the dangers of the road. There were always those ready to take advantage of desperate travellers.
She shuddered at the thought of what might have happened if they had not been warned to leave when they did. But she was still uneasy. Was there a risk of being pursued? Had anyone seen them leave? Although her husband’s family came from this region, she had never before been this far south. How long would it take them to reach the border? Would they be safe even then? Would they ever see their home again?
* * *
Amid the uproar and outrage, the horror and the grief of the next morning, no-one noticed the sudden absence of that peasant family from up north. They were distant cousins somehow but they might have left a week ago. And if they were away from here, they were luckier than the rest of them.
After 30 years, their memories of that time were a blur. It had been strange time. First there had been the census and the influx of visitors to the village. Then there were stories of some of the out-of-town shepherds seeing angels and awhile later a group of strange foreigners came looking for a recently-born child. They seemed exotic and wealthy and quite unlike any other visitors the village could remember.
But all of these occurrences were all-but-lost in the sorrow of the morning the soldiers came and killed a generation of their children. This was still painfully clear. “Messiahs” came and went—and the people’s hopes with them, particularly in Bethlehem that seemed to have a special place in some of the old prophecies—but their children were brutally taken away.
The order from Herod had been to kill all the boys under two years old but with ruthless efficiency and the taste for blood, the soldiers were not checking carefully. In their small village, at least 20 children were dragged from their mothers’ arms, taken from their humble homes, and callously murdered that morning.
For three decades, Bethlehem had suffered the reminder of a missing generation. They had not celebrated any 30th birthdays for a couple of years now but this gap had been obvious at each stage of these missing lives. Each absent milestone was a reminder of the tragedy that had been sent to their village—and a time to mourn anew. Although dulled by the years, the grief was still real.
* * *
Today was Rachel’s particular day for grief. Her firstborn son would have been turning 30 today. He had been six days old that morning. She was still considered “unclean” and had not yet left the house since giving birth. Worse, her son had not yet been named. As they had watched their newborn son with justifiable pride, Rachel and her husband had narrowed their list of ideas to three but they had two more days before he would to be circumcised and named.
In the early morning, she had heard noise coming from the street but, numbed by the fatigue of early motherhood, she had not dragged herself from the bed to look out before the door was roughly pushed open and in a blur of violence and brutality too horrible to describe, imagine or remember, her son was taken from her and all she wanted to remember hearing were her own screams.
Then her son was gone. He was never named. Three later sons used each of their shortlisted names. Now men with young families of their own, she loved them dearly—but her first-born was always absent.
That she was not alone in her sorrow offered little comfort at first. Her grief was hers alone, too raw to share and without having properly named her son it always seemed too difficult to talk about him. And having spent so little time with him, she had few stories to tell. Her own nine-month relationship with her son was something she was unable to share or even understand. There were so many why questions.
At first, she refused the comfort offered by other families but an informal “club” of the bereaved grew among those mothers over the years. It was a terrible bond but a bond no less and one that mellowed with the decades. When they acknowledged each other in the street, there was a deeper knowing between them. At times, they remembered quietly together. And they eventually became the group of women who would work together to support a family that lost a child in some new tragedy.
But today was another day for Rachel’s own grief. Not only did she still mourn her son, she mourned not getting know him better, seeing him grow, the young man he would have become. She mourned the lost years and also the lost hope. What if one of the boys from their village had been the Messiah as the king had feared? What if it might have been her son? She hardly dared think further on this. What if tyrant Herod had won? There was always talk of “messiahs”—but what if Israel really had lost their one true hope in that morning of murder? Would God have let that happen?
To add salt to the wound of her grief and insult to her dark reflections, there was a buzz around Bethlehem that morning about a new teacher—undoubtedly, another possible “messiah”—who was attracting some attention and was said to be coming through their village. Being so close to Jerusalem, they heard most of the stories of new teachers and potential messiahs but this man was becoming known for being able to work miracles and part of the interest in his rumoured visit to their village focused on this. A new messiah might make his stand or his statement at some point but it seemed there was a possibility of a miracle today. The village waited with excitement.
* * *
Mary had told Jesus the stories of Bethlehem many times but, when He turned 12, she told Him the story of their escape from Bethlehem in the early morning darkness and the massacre that happened behind them. She told the story with a heavy heart, remembering Simeon’s warnings to her, but also recognising the duty placed on her from the first angel announcing her miraculous child. “Highly favoured,” perhaps, but also seriously burdened with an awesome responsibility.
It was a key moment in Jesus’ understanding of His identity and His mission. This story cemented His growing and sobering realisation that He must be “about His Father’s business,” the explanation He gave for His three-day disappearance at the temple in Jerusalem later that same year. While it would be years until He became publicly known as a teacher and—as was first whispered, then talked about more openly—possible messiah, Mary’s telling of this story worked in His heart and mind like a carpenter’s splinter.
It was a bitter irony that the tragedy that had visited Bethlehem was not because of the people’s godlessness, as some would allege, or because of God’s indifferent absence, as so many more would argue by their desperate question, “Where was God?” Instead, this horrific crime came about precisely because of His presence. This troubled Him deeply.
In His first major public sermon, He referenced this story at the climax of His list of those who are “blessed” in the kingdom of heaven: “Blessed are those who suffer because of Me.” Even before He was conscious of His identity—either His humanity or His divinity—there were those who suffered because of Him. It broke His heart and, more so, as He imagined the countless more who would suffer in so many different ways “because of Him” or “for His sake.” Somehow they must be “blessed.”
So His journeying took Him to Bethlehem. He could hardly stay away. It was becoming more difficult for Him around Jerusalem and He expected He would soon focus His ministry around Galilee, away from the dangerous crowds and politics of the city. But first He wanted to visit the village of His birth that had featured in so many of Mary’s special stories, as well as being so significant in the history of the Hebrew people. Not knowing quite what He would find there, He suspected He would not be able to ignore the darker, more troubling story of His family’s escape on the eve of the darkest day in Bethlehem’s history.
* * *
As news of His soon arrival spread through the village, Rachel joined the small crowd in the marketplace who were curious to see this teacher and supposed miracle worker. It seemed a good distraction from her dominant thoughts of the day and she was as curious as anyone. The market was winding down after the morning’s trade and she stood under the shade of a small tree with a group of “the mothers.”
The crowd accompanying this teacher was a strange assortment but, from their accents, mostly Galileans and mostly uneducated, which was strange for a teacher and his disciples. Almost all of them were dressed as common people, unwashed and dusty from the road. There was nothing to distinguish their teacher from the rest of the crowd except for the attention directed toward the one they called Jesus.
For a teacher rapidly becoming famous, she was surprised that He seemed so young, maybe about . . . 30. He could . . . he could have been her son.
As they came to the marketplace, the local villagers were subsumed into the travelling crowd and the group came to a halt as Jesus turned to speak directly to the informal gathering. Rachel and the other women stayed in their shade and a step removed from the group but could hear what was said.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus began. His followers’ response suggested they recognised a message they had heard a number of times before.
“Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.”
Eventually, perhaps, thought Rachel bitterly. The teacher had hit a sensitive spot, especially today. She had spent so long refusing to be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth,” Jesus continued, pausing after each statement to allow responses.
“Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.” A few villagers were still arriving but the marketplace had grown quiet as the teacher’s voice hung in the warm afternoon air.
“Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.”
Rachel could sense the grandeur of what this Jesus was saying. He was describing a way of living and measuring life that seemed so different from what she experienced. She looked around her. For the most part, these were the poor, the mourning, the meek, even the hungry sometimes.
She had tuned out for a moment but Jesus caught her attention again.
“Blessed are those who suffer because of Me”—and then He caught her eye, looking directly at her, under the tree.
It was as if He saw her 30-year-old pain. She held her breath, as He stepped toward her and the crowd opened before Him. A murmur went through the crowd, unsure why Jesus had picked out Rachel, not knowing or remembering the significance of this date.
Then He was standing before her, like the son she had never known. “Blessed are those who suffer because of Me,” He repeated quietly.
“What . . . what do you mean?” Rachel asked, her hurt wrestling with her confusion. “I have suffered—as have many here—but not ‘because of you’ . . .”
“The Son of Man is a son of Bethlehem,” Jesus said.
“But all the stories say you are from Galilee, from Nazareth?” a bystander interjected.
“The Son of Man is also a son of Bethlehem,” Jesus repeated, still focussed on Rachel. “I was born here. My mother told me the story of how my family left Bethlehem after being warned that King Herod was trying to kill Me. My mother and Joseph has no idea how Herod would do that—or they would have warned everyone.”
“Why . . . ?” Rachel began to ask the countless questions that had haunted her for 30 years but stopped as tears filled her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” Jesus said to her with a sincerity that could not be doubted and somehow an authority that seemed enough.
For a few agonising moments, Rachel continued to sob. And Jesus wept.
Then God hugged Rachel until their tears subsided and she and Jesus were silent together under that tree in the village marketplace, as the crowd looked on with a strange sense of impromptu road-side reverence.
And, after 30 years, she was comforted.