Thousands of pilgrims had lain and thanked God because helping hands were extended to them on their journey through the perilous and beautiful world. — Sigrid Undset
When my son was an infant I’d look at him in his crib as he slept at night. His stomach was full, and he smelled of baby shampoo and lavender lotion. He was healthy and warm. He slept without fear.
Watching my little boy’s chest go in and out, I thought of all the mothers in the world who lay their children down each night under much different circumstances.
Babies who cry themselves to sleep from pain or hunger. Babies sleeping restlessly because they are cold. Babies who cry out at night and no one is there. Babies who have ceased to cry at all.
As I got ready for bed it struck me that I am no different. I’m fed and warm and mostly without pain. More significantly, I lay my head down on my pillow each night, never imagining that a bomb would hit the house, a stray bullet come through the window or a black car glide up to the house followed by the dreaded knock at the door.
I thought of mothers who cannot lay their babies down at all, but clutch them tightly as they flee some terror or hide in corners. I wept with sadness and anger, gratitude for my own well-being, and strangely — guilt.
I know that I have done nothing to deserve my privileged state of safety and well-being. If I am so blessed, why aren’t others? In some twisted way, it feels like my plenty leaves others in scarcity. Because I am whole, they are broken.
On a Sunday morning, years ago, the Scripture text was about the Holy Family and their flight to Egypt. After hearing the story read, my 7-year-old daughter asked me, with the genuine wonder of a child, “Why didn’t God just tell all the mothers about Herod? Why did he only tell Mary?”
I hadn’t ever quite thought of it that way, and for years I harbored a little grudge against God about this story.
Recently, I again heard a sermon about the baby Jesus and his family running away to Egypt while every other toddler in Bethlehem was slaughtered.
The preacher, like my daughter, focused on the question of theodicy. She spent most of the sermon making apologies for the story, for the Bible, for God.
It is absolutely true that God is culpable on several fronts in the Matthew story: God allows Herod power in the first place, God doesn’t warn all families, and — most disturbing — the entire episode seems to be staged in order for several prophecies to be fulfilled.
How can Christians understand this story to fit with a loving, good God?
Perhaps it isn’t meant to be read from the perspective of middle-class Americans. I imagine a Syrian refugee family reads this as a deliverance story. A Colombian family waiting for asylum in Texas can surely relate to Mary, Joseph and the baby in ways I never will.
What would it be like to discuss the story with a woman gathering the courage to escape her abusive partner? What about a soldier in his foxhole? A new mom engulfed in post-partum depression?
The Egypt story teaches that God not only is with the refugee. God is the refugee.
In the form of a helpless child, God became a desperate and needy wayfarer. When we encounter people who are weak and vulnerable, including ourselves at times, we can know that we are looking at Jesus and that what we do for them we do for our Savior.
Do I suggest that the innocent babies slaughtered in Bethlehem are insignificant or don’t merit our anger and anguish? I do not.
I do, however, suggest that this story transcends the question of what is, or is not, fair.
Herod’s role here is to show us that Herod exists and will always exist. Why Herod exists with power is one of those questions with no answer. Whether it is Pharaoh, Hitler, Pol Pot, Assad, hurricanes, famine or any manner of evil, God is aware. God is not surprised or afraid, and God is sending angels.
For anyone seeking protection from harm, this story is good news indeed.
Sarah Kehrberg lives in the Craggy Mountains of western North Carolina with her husband and three children.