Bishop's Message

The boys of Bethlehem

Dec 2003    

THIS is the time of the year when the story of Christmas would be told countless times in nativity plays, sermons and magazine articles. The story of the birth of Jesus brings joy to our hearts and smiles on our faces as we hear the familiar carols in churches and shopping centres, on our car radios and in town centres.

Where the all-too dominant Santa Claus is thankfully absent, we get a chance to see in Sunday school plays shepherds and sheep, angels and wise men and are reminded of the biblical account of the birth of Jesus.

One important part of the story is, however, often forgotten or left untold. That is probably because of its darkness, pain and violence. Who wants to be reminded of such things when celebrating Christmas? But the details are there in the Bible and are an integral part of the Christmas story.

The wise men from the east lost their way as they followed the star to greet the new-born king. It took them some time to find the baby. Who could blame them for thinking that the child born to be king would not be anywhere else but the palace? Their logic brought them to the palace of King Herod who, on hearing their story, found out that the Messiah King would be born in Bethlehem (Mt. 2:1-6).

Herod’s jealousy and insecurity joined forces with his political shrewdness as he discovered the details of the appearance of the star in the east. He then tried to fool the wise men with his false piety and told them to return to him once they had found the child. The purpose was to know the exact location and identity of the child. He pretended that he wanted to worship this new-born king but in his heart he wanted to get rid of this new competition to his throne, so he thought.

The angels then got to work. They warned the wise men of Herod’s evil plans who then avoided passing through Jerusalem again so that Herod did not get the vital information he wanted so badly. When Herod realised that the wise men had outsmarted him the dam burst and the evil in his heart spilled out into the open. He sent his soldiers to Bethlehem, and because he did not know where the new-born king was or who he was, with cruel calculation he ordered the soldiers to kill all the boys in Bethlehem who were two years old and under.

It was a tragic sight. The little boys of Bethlehem were slaughtered that day. Their infant cries were silenced by the swords of violent men acting on the heartless command of a wicked man. Their mothers wept and wailed helplessly as all hell broke loose that day. Their hearts were pierced and shattered. And the fathers stood by helplessly, unable to stop the evil from entering every door.

Jesus is good news in a world trapped in sin

The Boy that the wicked Herod wanted to kill so badly was not there in Bethlehem on that fateful day. An angel had warned Joseph of Herod’s despicable intentions and instructed him to bring mother and child to Egypt, far away from the reach of Herod’s violent sword. Soon after this, Herod, the man who tried to hang on to his throne so violently, lost his grip on life and died. It was as if heaven had pronounced judgement. Jesus was then brought back to Israel.

The world into which Jesus was born was ugly with human sin and violence. It still is. Every now and then, Herods emerge in history with their gross wickedness. Massacres, such as the one in Bethlehem, continue to bloody the sad pages of history. The voices of victims cry out asking whether this will ever end. The spilled blood of the slain cries out to heaven for justice and redemption (Gen. 4:10).

The birth of Jesus is the long-awaited answer from heaven. Though being God, He emptied Himself for our sake and became a man (Phil 2:6-8). He stepped into the swirling muddy waters of a world gone mad with sin. He left the sweet fragrance of heaven and entered the stench of a world of depraved human beings. Yes, if you think seriously about it, everyone has a little bit of Herod in him. One may not be as desperately wicked as Herod but the same depravity dwells in every human heart.

It is to save the human race from sin that Jesus was born. He made Himself so vulnerable that the One through whom the world was made had to be brought to the safety of Egypt away from the violent swings of Herod’s sword. He was kept away from harm, only to be crucified and killed violently later at the young age of 33. But it was necessary for without the shedding of His blood there was no salvation for the world (Heb 9:14).

Christmas then is the story of a God who loved the world so much that He acted in a most amazing way. It is indeed good news because the Saviour of the world was born on that day. It is good news like the way an oasis is good news in a vast and arid desert. That Christmas is good news is made all the more vivid when we see it in the real world of suffering and sin.

It is too bad that we often sanitise the manger scene, and make Christmas all fluffy and nice, white and squeaky clean, minus the stench of beasts of burden and the real gut-wrenching hungers of poverty that were very much part of the Christmas story. We turn down the disturbing sounds of wailing, heart-torn mothers, weeping for their massacred infant sons. But that was the real world into which Jesus was born. And it is in that kind of world that the birth of Jesus, the Saviour and Light of the world, becomes truly good news. Indeed, light is good news in darkness. A cup of water is good news in the desert. And so is Jesus good news in a world trapped in sin.

The boys of Bethlehem were mercilessly killed that awful day. One might say that they died so that the Boy of Bethlehem could be saved. The irony is that years later, this Boy of Bethlehem showed that in fact it was He who came to earth to die so that the boys of Bethlehem could be ultimately saved. For while the Heavenly Father received the slain boys into His safe and secure arms, never to be troubled again, He left His Son on earth to finish His painful work. It was the Boy who later died in place of the boys. Just as He was also sacrificed for you and for me.

Jesus was born as the Lamb of God who came to take away the sins of the world (Jn. 1:29). That is the good news of Christmas. Mary, who bore Jesus, saw all that was happening “and treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Lk. 2:19, 51).

This Christmas we can do the same. In the midst of all the frantic and busy celebrations, where Christmas is often emptied of its true context (tragic world) and significance (good news), let us remember the real world into which Jesus was born and praise God that Jesus is truly good news for a dying world. Let us like Mary find time to treasure these truths and ponder them in our hearts this Christmas.

My wife and I take this opportunity to wish you and your loved ones a blessed Christmas.

Madonna and Child by Carlo Maratta, 17th century. - CNS picture.


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