Doug McCleary: Celebrant, Officiant, Musician

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A voice was heard in Ramah...

Posted by Doug McCleary on December 17, 2012 at 2:25 PM

For those familiar with the Gospels--the four books of the New Testament which present our only portrait of Jesus--one of the more troubling passages comes from the very early chapters of the Gospel of Matthew.  The story goes like this:  The "wise men" have come from the east guided by the star.  They stop at Herod's palace (Herod was the Roman governor of the province of Palestine) and ask him "where is he who has been born king of the Jews?"  Herod seeks out any information regarding the predicted birthplace of a Messiah (a Matthean invention, but useful to the story) and he send the wise men to Bethlehem, and tells them "come back and report what you find."  Herod's true motive--so Matthew tells us--is petty jealousy.  He is afraid for his own power.  The wise men don't go back to Herod (Matthew tells us they were "warned in a dream" not to), instead going directly back to their home.  And then we read this:


Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him."


2.14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, 2.15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, "Out of Egypt have I called my son." 2.16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men


2.17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: 2.18 "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more."


What makes this story troubling for modern minds is the killing of all those children under the age of 2--a slaughter is what the author paints.  We often no longer see it because we are so familiar with the story that it doesn't impact us as it should.  A ruler, killing hundreds (if not thousands) of children...all as a petty power play...a desperate attempt to retain his place in society.  We should be outraged when we read this story.  Only our familiarity keeps us from shock.  We should be outraged by Herod...and, in a way, our sensibilities should be shocked that God allows such a slaughter to occur around his "son's" birth....  Why is such a redemptive moment in history surrounded by such tragedy?


Now, here we are...just a few daya following another horrific tragedy involving the lives (and deaths) of Children.  And it's Christmas season ("Advent" if you are part of a liturgical tradition)...and we are horrified and shocked and feeling paralyzed, not knowing what to do.  Can there be any joy this Christmas in the face of such overwhelming evil?


That "voice in Ramah" is now "a voice heard in Newtown, wailing and loud lamentation--mothers weeping for their children...they could not be consoled because they were no more."  It's a voice heard in Portland, Oregon...weeping for those lost in the senseless mall shooting.  But this has impacted more than a handful of mothers in Newtown or families in Portland.  This has touched all of us.  We ask "why"...we wonder "how"...and we just shake our heads and throw up our hands in mute, humbled impotence before an act of such senseless and heartbreaking violence.  It's a rare moment in modern America when we are all together in our heartbreak.  And maybe, out of that, will come some good?


It's too early to even try seeing anything resembling a "silver lining" in the events of last Friday.  We probably should still be mute and stunned with sickened horror, and hold off until these children are buried.  But a story similar is part of the Gospel tradition--part of the tradition surrounding Advent and Christmas.  And that story is part of a much larger narrative of redemptive purpose--of God guiding history towards something better.  Will redemption of some sort come from the Newtown tragedy?  We're already arguing about gun control...and philosophical and ideological differences about where we go from here (and this is one discussion that elicits American passions more than most anything else).   In the face of such an ugly show of human evil, what more important thing can we do except wait and pray and hope and do our best--each of us--to make life a little more civil and less heartbreaking for those around us!?


I started writing with vague ideas of what to say.  Like everyone else, I'm still reeling from the reality of what's happened.  I wanted to say that this is humanity--and mass murders and the killing of thousands (even millions) is part of our difficult history and evolution, and while Newtown is awful, it is nothing new to humans, and won't be the last time we see such tragedy.  I wanted to say that I am heartbroken and sickened and impotent in the face of such evil and mourning.  And I still haven't said much.


But perhaps this Christmas--for those for whom Christmas is a holiday of faith--our  text for worship shouldn't be "behold, born unto you"...but--in light of our times and our pain--maybe "A voice was heard in Ramah"?  Because amidst the good news, we recognize this is an Advent and Christmas season for mourning.

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