Yesterday, I attended the funeral for our friends’ 16-year-old son. I noticed his mother in the front row, dabbing away her tears. I thought about the tears she would certainly shed on Christmas Eve this year (and in years to come). Then I remembered—Christmas is for weeping mothers.
We remember weeping mothers at Christmas. God wrote them into the story. (This should be surprising. The history of God’s people since Cain killed Abel is a history of mothers’ tears.) Though the event likely took place 2-3 years after Jesus’ birth, we read it every year in churches as we remember Christ’s appearance. Matthew 2:17-18 records:
Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
What’s Jeremiah saying? Why does he go on tell Rachel to dry her tears, as though the dead can be raised again?
Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears,
for there is a reward for your work,
declares the LORD,
and they shall come back from the land of the enemy.
There is hope for your future,
declares the LORD,
and your children shall come back to their own country.
How can Matthew see the weeping of Rachel as a prophetic foretelling of Jesus’ birth, fulfilled in the weeping mothers of Bethlehem (which he quotes immediately after Jesus goes into exile in Egypt and right before he returns to his own country)?
This question reminds me of one I asked several years ago in a sermon: Is “look for and listen to Jesus” a legitimate application of Exodus 1:22-2:10?
I offered this closing story—fictional but entirely probable—which alludes to Rachel weeping for her children:
Centuries after Moses died, after Joshua brought the people into the land, after the rise of King David and King Solomon, after the divide of the kingdom into Israel and Judah—the people of Israel have been carried off into exile, where they are worked as slaves.
On the banks of a river, there is a makeshift city of little one-room Jewish houses, each with a small Jewish family. We look inside one of them.
It is late at night. The family has just finished their supper. The children have crawled onto their straw mats and grabbed their tattered blankets. Father is about to extinguish their lamp, when a little voice says, “Papa, will you tell us a story?” And the others join in, “Yes, Papa! Will you tell us a story? Just one? Pleeeeeeeeeeeeease?” Papa, unable to resist, sits on the floor beside their mat, as they gather around him, and says, “Ok, children, but just one. Papa is tired and must work tomorrow.”
In the dimly lit room, his story begins, “Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, ‘Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live.’” And within a minute or so, it concludes, “When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. She named him Moses, ‘Because,’ she said, ‘I drew him out of the water.’” (He has recited for them our passage, with all the drama that a good father ought to use when telling children true tall tales!)
And as he moves to extinguish the lamp, he hears a noise, a small weeping. He turns to see his 7-year-old daughter crying.
“What is it, Naomi?” he asks.
“Papa, why is our life so bitter? We live in a foreign land. We had to leave grandma behind in Israel. You and mama work as slaves for wicked men. Yahweh has made our lives very bitter here. Why doesn’t he send us a Moses to lead back to the land, like he did for Israel so long ago?”
And then 12-year-old Jeremiah complains, “Mother’s last baby died in these conditions. And next year, I too must leave to be a slave or a soldier. Everywhere I go, mothers are weeping over their lost children, and fathers are dead and dying. Yahweh has forgotten us!”
And then little, 5-year-old Jacob, pipes in, “Is that true, Papa, has Yahweh forgotten us?”
And then the father, pierced to the heart, returns to his knees before his children. He takes their faces in his hands and says tenderly:
“My sweet Naomi, life is very bitter for us now. But as sure as the sun and moon and stars, Yahweh will once again make the life of his people pleasant.
“Yes, Jeremiah, even as Rachel died, weeping over Benjamin, the mothers of Israel weep for their children. But keep back your voice from complaining, for there is hope for our future. Yahweh will redeem his people once again.
“And Jacob—hear, O Israel, Yahweh, our God, keeps covenant and steadfast love. He never forgets his people. He always keeps his promises.
“Yahweh did send baby Moses to deliver his people from Egypt. And before he departed, Moses said that Yahweh would send a prophet like him, one that we should look for and to whom we should listen. So, when you hear this story of Moses in the Nile, you should not hear merely an account of what Yahweh did once, but a story of what Yahweh will do again.
“Yahweh will send his Servant to redeem us. He will redeem us, not only from this foreign land but from the sin that brings such judgment upon us. Look for this new Moses, this new David—set your hope in Him.”
Jesus and the Hebrew Children
When this Jewish father makes that application from Exodus 1:22-2:10 he is reading and applying it precisely as Moses wanted him to. When he alludes to Rachel’s weeping, telling his daughter to hold back her tears in light of Yahweh’s promise, he is reading and applying Moses correctly.
So when the story of the baby in the bulrush basket is read at breakfast and bedtime, and fathers take in their hands the faces of their little Naomi’s and Jacob’s, and say, “Yahweh has sent Jesus to deliver his people from their slavery to sin, death and the devil. Listen to him and trust in him.”—they are reading and applying Exodus exactly right.
When miscarrying and bereaved mothers weep over lost children, and they remember the slaughter of the innocents, and they put their hope in the Son who overcame death, they are grasping the meaning of Rachel’s weeping and Jeremiah’s prophecy and the dead boys of Bethlehem rightly.
If Moses or Jeremiah or Matthew were here, they would add their “Amen!”
For whenever Moses or Jeremiah or Matthew is read today, Yahweh is taking in his hands the faces of all those created in his image and saying to us, “I have sent someone better than Moses. I have sent a Servant who has died for sins and risen from the dead. I have sent Jesus, my beloved son, with whom I am well-pleased. Listen to him.”
We should pray that as we read Moses, Yahweh would remove the veil from our faces, so that we could see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, the image of God—and that, beholding the glory of the Lord, we might be transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”
The Weeping of Mothers at Christmas
We should pray for all the mothers weeping at Christmas, that they would know God has seen them since Eve wept over Abel. The Father sees them. A thousand years of mothers’ tears proclaimed the need for and promise of the Seed of the Woman. May their tears of faith today announce his arrival two-thousand years ago. May the mothers weeping on Christmas Eve strengthen our resolve to wait for The Boy Who Lived to appear again. He who descended from heaven, who died for sins, who rose again and ascended to the right hand of the Father—he is returning to bring us back from the land of death into our own country, to make all things new. Let us listen to and hope in him.
May Yahweh’s Spirit make it so.