The Darker Side of Christmas…

One of the more unpleasant events surrounding  the Christmas story is found in Matthew 2, and has been described and depicted as the “Slaughter of Innocents.” It was the results of Herod’s, the ruler of Judea, paranoid reaction to being told by the Magi that they had come from the East to venerate he who was born King of the Jews. He wanted to make sure that no baby king was going to usurp his throne so he ordered the extermination of all male children 2 yrs and less in the little town of Bethlehem where the the Magi had gone to worship the Christ child.

Many scholars do not believe that such an event took place because there are no historical indications, not even in Josephus who usually recorded such things. Also, none of the other gospels mention it. However, historian Paul Maier reminds us that while this was a tragedy, it was local and limited in its impact. Bethlehem at that time had approximately 1500 citizens.

Dr. Maier says, “In my actuarial study, Bethlehem at the time wouldn’t have had more than about two dozen babies two years old and under — half of them female… Josephus may have heard about it and not used it because you don’t have hundreds of babies killed… only about 12. And so this is not a big deal [historically], and I think that is why Josephus either never heard about it or didn’t feel it important enough to record. So this does not militate against Matthew’s version by any means.”

Obviously, no matter how small the number, we should still consider it a tragedy—an example of the fallenness of humanity, the abuse of power over the poor by tyrannical government, and a foreshadowing of the future tragedy that would be heaped upon another Innocent; the Lord Jesus Christ, who would die for your sins and mine.

As an addendum to Matthew’s account, I want to address a fragile and tender subject. I have received a number of questions over my years of pastoral ministry concerning babies who die.  What happens to them? Much of our perspective has been influenced by Roman Catholic theology, which has developed the category of “limbo”—the place where unbaptized babies go upon their death. It is depicted as a place where they would never see God, but neither would they suffer. The problem is that the Bible never says anything about “limbo.” It also never teaches that baptism saves anyone – only faith in Christ.

Unfortunately, there is no definitive biblical teaching on what happens to babies who die and so we are left to look for principles that might help answer this question. We know that while babies cannot exercise faith, they do possess a sinful nature that one day will affect their whole lives. We also believe that their consciences have never been awakened so as to understand the nature of sin, repentance, or the essence of the gospel. Therefore, because they can neither accept nor refuse grace, I do not believe that a gracious and merciful God will hold them accountable for their sin. They will be covered by the blood of Christ.*

In addition, Jesus used little children as an analogy of what we must be like in order to enter heaven. Matthew 18:1-10 is a very interesting text, which may indicate that the situation of a helpless child (or the lowly disciple) will always come to the attention of and be addressed by their Father in Heaven. Thus I believe God in His mercy will graciously provide for the weak and vulnerable child. I think that these same principles could also be applied to the person who is mentally incapacitated from birth.*

*These are my interpretive opinions that have given me a place to stand as I have rendered pastoral care to many who have lost their little ones. I am open to more learning on the subject.


I remember watching an old Alfred Hitchcock thriller many years ago about a banker, a very quiet man who lived a very private life with no family or friends with whom to share it. His work was his life; always the first one at the bank in the morning, making sure the vault clicked open for the day, and he was the last one to leave in the evening, doing inventory and making sure the vault was locked.

He worked every day, taking no time off because there was nothing else in his life but his work. The one exception was Christmas; he always took Christmas off. He would seclude himself in his tiny apartment and cook himself dinner. He would then eat, sitting by his scraggily Charlie Brown Christmas tree watching old movies on his 12-inch black and white TV, and drinking his yearly glass of beer.

Well, it was Christmas Eve and the bank closed at noon. He was looking forward to going home for his yearly ritual, but ended up staying at the bank until 4 pm doing extra work since no one would be working the next day. He was a bit distracted by this change in routine, and as he took all the cash into the vault he carelessly forgot to prop the door open. It slowly closed behind him with a loud thud and a “click.” He was locked in and the vault door was set not to open again until the day after Christmas. And there he sat all alone in the dark. He was used to being alone, but not like this. He had no food or water — he was just alone.

The day after Christmas finally came and the vault clicked open. He dragged himself to the bathroom to clean up and get water and then to his desk where he kept some stale biscuits. The other employees began to arrive and noticed he looked a bit haggard, but no one greeted him or asked how his Christmas was. He was glad no one cared because then he would have to tell them that he missed Christmas altogether.

There are some folks in the Bible who also missed Christmas, but for different reasons…

Although there is no mention of an innkeeper in the Christmas story, we do know there was an inn of some sort. So, we assume there was a man or woman who ran the place. Also, we do not want to unfairly criticize the owner because it wasn’t his fault that Caesar Augustus had declared a census which made the little town of Bethlehem swell to several times its normal size. In his defense, he was probably overwhelmed with work which only people who own their own business would understand. Someone has said that it feels like “being lost in a forest of a million trees, and each tree is a thing to be done. A million trees…a million things and finally we have eyes for nothing else, and whatever we see turns into that thing.”

Do you indentify with the innkeeper? Is your favorite Christmas carol “O little town of Bedlam?” Is your life just too frenzied and cluttered that you are tyrannized by the urgent and no longer have time for the important? No, we don’t want to criticize the owner, but we do want to point out that the Messiah was born right under his nose and to our knowledge, he didn’t even know it. He was so busy, he missed Christmas

Herod the Great was a man who could not brook any competition. History tells us that he murdered at least one wife and at least three of his sons. People said it was safer to be Herod’s pig than a member of his family. So we can understand why he was so upset when the Magi visited and said there was another king in the region- they had seen his star. Herod hatched a maniacal plan to destroy all the male infants in Bethlehem. Here is a man who was probably 70 yrs old and was threatened by a baby. So let me ask you whether your self-centeredness will make you miss Christmas this year? You may be struggling because there is room for only one king in your life and perhaps you see Christ as your competitor. Are you trying to snuff him out by a cynical or uncaring attitude towards Christianity? Are you afraid of Christ because of what he might demand? Let me ask you one more question” “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36)

Well the innkeeper missed Christmas and Herod missed Christmas. There was another whole group of people who also missed the birth of Jesus. These were the Jewish religious leaders that Herod had called upon to tell him where the Messiah was to be born. They immediately referred to the prophecy in Micah 5:2, which said it would be in Bethlehem in the land of Judah, where a ruler would be born who would become the Shepherd of God’s people Israel. These men knew text and verse, but they did not even go and investigate. They were religious and yet they missed Christmas.

Religion has not only prevented people from finding Jesus, but has often been used to justify Crusades, Holocausts, and Jihads.  Even in our own history as a country, the Bible was used as a justification for slavery. You see, sometimes religion creates a kind of blindness or builds a certain immunity against the real thing. Maybe you are religious, but the question is do you know Jesus Christ?  Are you substituting religion for the real thing — a relationship with him? If you are, then you’ll miss Christmas this year and every year to come.

Let me challenge you not to become locked in the vault of busy-ness, self-interest, or religion. Instead, learn from Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds and Wise Guys, that Christmas is about Jesus. He is the Child born and the Son given (Isaiah 9:6).