It was a beautiful Christmas Eve. All was calm and bright. The front of the sanctuary was beautifully decorated with poinsettias, lights, and the typical lineup of nativity characters, creating a space that was filled with awe and subdued joy.
All of a sudden, there arose such a clatter. The rickety bench holding Mary and Joseph came crashing to the ground. No one was hurt, but in an instant all were torn away from the tranquility of the nativity scene that had been created.
As a child, I imagined the first Christmas to be a cozy, Currier and Ives-style scene. However, that calm and bright picture I created became rickety in adulthood, eventually failing to hold when I was diagnosed with infertility. An empty womb aches all the more at Christmas time, when everything seems to be about children—pictures with Santa, sugar plums dancing and, oh yeah, baby Jesus. If you want to remind a woman with infertility about her pain, tell her the story of an unmarried woman who is miraculously and unexpectedly pregnant.
However, as childless Christmases came and went, I found myself strangely consoled by an oft neglected and horrific part of the Christmas story—the part of the story that lurks dangerously just out of view.
King Herod, a paranoid and power-hungry ruler, was so notorious for his violent behavior that, when he was frightened, all of Jerusalem was frightened with him. Unable to find the child born king of the Jews, he did the unthinkable—he murdered all the male children two and under in Bethlehem. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, having already been warned in a dream, had fled to the safety of Egypt in advance of the slaughter.
This story raises all sorts of heartbreaking questions: What about the other babies? Jesus is Emmanuel, meaning God is with us, but where is God in the midst of the massacre of infants?
These questions found a home in me: Where was God in my pain? Why was God seemingly valuing life over there, but not here? Why was God’s favor available for some and not others?
When I continued in Matthew’s Gospel, I found a kindred spirit in Rachel, who in Jeremiah gave poetic voice to the lamentations of God’s people conquered by Assyria and Babylon. Likewise, Matthew, reviving the lamenting Rachel, gives voice to those otherwise silent sufferers crying out in Bethlehem. She weeps and wails and refuses to be consoled. While Matthew chose not to include God’s response to Rachel’s distress, in Jeremiah, God’s response is swift and hopeful (see Jeremiah 31:15-16).
Matthew’s inclusion of Jeremiah’s Rachel showed me a God who does not will such violence and pain, but who promises hope in the face of grief. In the fullness of the Christmas story, I found a God who weeps alongside me, while all the while working to establish a new heaven and new earth where there will be no more mourning, crying, and pain (Revelation 21:4). Beyond the fleeting all-is-calm-and- bright nativity scene, I found space for my pain.
If you enter this season burdened by pain and sorrow, there is still good news of great joy. You are not forgotten— God comes to be with you, in the midst of all you carry. You may not be able to sing, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” but I pray you can sing with hopeful confidence, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.”
Audrey Hollenberg-Duffey co-pastors, with her husband, Tim, Oakton Church of the Brethren in Vienna, Virginia.