It’s been a wonderful year for babies born to the daughters of people we know. Working backwards, in July to a girl we know very well indeed – her name is Katie – she’s my daughter – she gave birth to a girl named Scarlett. Angie and I – grandparents finally. I can’t tell you how much I can’t wait to begin undermining everything her parents tell (though from the single-mindedness she is already demonstrating daily, I suspect I will be surplus to requirements). Then in April, a boy named Mason was born to Lisa Gammon. And back in February, Carla, née Cavali, the daughter of two close friends of ours, had a little girl, Sophia Marie. But there was an even earlier arrival this year, earlier in February: Rachel Hamlyn, née Beynon – yes, our organist’s daughter – she gave birth to James, who was baptised here exactly two weeks ago.
But it’s not that Rachel I want to talk about this morning. The children of Katie and Lisa and Carla and Rachel, I am quite sure, will grow up surrounded by a tonne of TLC, and there is every hope that they will blossom and flourish. But of the children of another Rachel, and mothers like her, we can have no such hope. For this Rachel there is only a grief that refuses all consolation. As St Matthew records it, quoting the words of the prophet Jeremiah:
A sound was heard in Ramah,weeping and much lament.Rachel weeping for her children,Rachel refusing all solace,Her children gone, dead and buried.(Matthew 2:18, The Message)
We first hear of this Rachel in Genesis 29, when Jacob meets her by a well where she is watering a flock of her father Laban’s sheep (vv. 16-20). She is stunning. Boy meets girl at well, it’s love at first sight, and after courtship and marriage they will live happily ever after – it’s a venerable folktale, and we wait for the story to develop in the ensuing narrative. But it is not to be. Jacob works for seven years for Laban to get the girl of his dreams, but on their wedding night, under cover of darkness, Laban slips Rachel’s older sister Leah into the nuptial bed. Leah is veiled, and it is not until morning that Jacob recognises the deception. He confronts Laban, who re-promises Rachel to him, on condition that he works another seven years on his father-in-law’s farm. Done – such is Jacob’s passion for Rachel.
But the newlyweds’ problems are just beginning. They try and try, but Rachel, unlike Leah, is unable to bear children. “If I do not have children I will die!” Rachel cries. God finally hears her cry, and eventually she conceives and bears a son, Joseph, her husband’s favourite child, who will become the link between the origins of Israel in Canaan and the liberation of Israel from Egypt (not to mention becoming a West End stage star with an “amazing Technicolor dreamcoat”!). Rachel will go on to have another son, but this birth will not be the subject of a musical: Rachel dies in labour. With her last breath she names her boy Benoni, “son of my sorrow”, which Jacob changes to the more hopeful Benjamin, “son who will be fortunate”. Jacob then buries his beloved and sets a pillar by her tomb, which, the Bible says, “is there to this day” (Genesis 35:20). And Genesis makes a further observation, more than salient to the Christmas season: the tomb is “beside the road to Ephrath, now known as Bethlehem” (Genesis 35:19).
But Rachel’s role in the Hebrew Scriptures does not end in Genesis. There is another Old Testament reference to her, the one Matthew cites from Jeremiah. Here again Rachel is a figure of pain, but not the pain of death in childbirth. In Jeremiah, Rachel symbolises another kind of suffering, the suffering of injustice, the suffering of those who lose their freedom at the hands of violent power. When Babylon conquered Israel, Israel’s leaders and intelligentsia – the people most likely to cause trouble – were taken into exile. The captives were paraded along the highway that led past Rachel’s tomb. It was a road of humiliation and sorrow. Jeremiah has just prophesied Israel’s ultimate return home from Babylon, replete with anticipated scenes of singing and dancing, rejoicing and rebuilding. “I will turn their sorrow into gladness!” says the Lord. But then, in the next verse but one, the Lord says, “A sound is heard in Ramah” (Jeremiah 31:15) – that sound, the sound of inconsolable weeping and grief.
Finally, biblically, we hear that sound a third and conclusive time, Matthew’s recapitulation of Jeremiah’s lament, yet again near a town called Bethlehem, in yet another time of tears and trauma. “Perhaps no event in the gospel more determinatively challenges the sentimental depiction of Christmas than the death of these children [at the hands of Herod]. Jesus is born into a world in which children are killed, and continue to be killed, to protect the power of tyrants” (Stanley Hauerwas). In Genesis, Rachel is an icon of the suffering of childbirth. In Jeremiah, Rachel is an icon of the mother of victims of oppression. Here in Matthew, Rachel combines both traditions. How grim can grief get?
But hang on. Is that it? Is there no hope? There must be, surely. Surely there is a future. Look at Benjamin: he will have ten sons, and generations hence from his line will spring the apostle Paul. Look at Rachel’s post-exilic children – they will indeed finally return home. And look at the one Herod was after, the one who evades his mass murder, Jesus of Nazareth himself. Yes, that is true. “There is hope for your future,” as the Lord says to Rachel (Jeremiah 31:17).
Yes, that is true. But it is not true as repression and cover-up. It is not true if it means that the desolate can simply forget their heartbroken past. It is not true if it suggests that immense loss does not irretrievably determine one’s very identity – it does. For the wretched of the earth, everything becomes a potential reminder of the eye that will never be dried, and the tear that will never be mended. Sorrows that were once the potholes of life now become the main road – the one that winds its inexorable way past Rachel’s tomb, bang into a stable in Bethlehem. Thus Martin Luther rightly saw in Rachel’s story a link between the Nativity and Good Friday.
Rachel refused to be consoled – and God blessed her in her refusal. God promised Rachel hope – but not a hope on which she might count on the basis of reason or resourcefulness, experience or expectation. That would be a false hope. True hope is always hope against hope, inexplicable, unjustifiable, and unsecurable. True hope is always but a razor’s edge from despair, because it cannot and will not close its eyes to the anguish, or shut its ears to the screams, that constitute the sordid story of the world – the murdered children, the massacred victims, the millions of tortured and disappeared. No, as the poet Emily Dickinson understood: “To relieve the irreparable degrades it.” Even Christ does not relieve the irreparable. Our Lord’s identity too is irretrievably bound to his wounds. His resurrection does not remove them. His scars mark him eternally. How should it not be so with all God’s children?
The crib and the cross of Jesus are our hope – Rachel’s hope, the mothers of the infants of Bethlehem’s hope, the hope of the mothers of the twenty children murdered at Sandy Hook School – the hope of the mother of the murderer too – and the hope of the mothers, always and everywhere, of slain or suffering children. But the hope of the crib and the cross does not mean that the victims are any less dead, or their parents and families any less grief-stricken. We betray the Christian hope if we lie about the world of death and grief, for it is precisely this world that the born, crucified, and risen One has redeemed and is redeeming – this slaughter-bench of a world that he redeems. And for his followers that means that we do not live in denial of the one, even as we do live in affirmation of the other, and that we both accept that we do not know what the future holds – it is beyond our control – and insist that we do know who holds it. And it also means that we live in opposition and resistance to all that would demean and destroy any of the creation that God once pronounced good, and stand protectively but peacefully beside Rachel and her children. It means we cry, “Lord, have mercy!” – and then take responsibility.
“Seeing ourselves honestly, seeing the world differently. That’s where faith begins,” as Rowan Williams put it on Wednesday. Thus may we go into to the New Year with two echoes resounding: the cry of those who will not be consoled, and the voice of Jesus who, on the precipice of despair, which is yet the brink of glory, says, “Fear not, take up your cross, and follow me.”