“Matthew’s account of the other boys of Bethlehem is an uncomfortable part of the Christmas story, one I’d rather turn my eyes from. But I need it, especially this year. It pushes me beyond the familiar to consider the others. And I need the push.”
I’ve been thinking about the other baby boys. The ones in the Christmas story we tend to edit out. Understandably. The execution of Bethlehem boys aged two years old and younger doesn’t make for pleasant tree-trimming banter or Christmas dinner table talk. It’s a guaranteed mood spoiler.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not out to spoil Christmas. I love echoing the angels’ joyous strain each year. I get chills every time I hear Mariah Carey climb her way to the summit of “O Holy Night.” The tree, the lights, the food, most of the music, the gift giving—they’re all safe from censure in my books. It’s just that in preparation for writing this Christmas article in early July, I re-read Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus through to the end of chapter two. Ever since, I’ve been thinking about the other baby boys, imagining the mourning mothers of Bethlehem weeping for their children “and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more” (Matthew 2:18). I’ve been in the presence of that kind of pain. I feel completely helpless in the face of it. And here it is, this pitch-black thread of unspeakable grief woven into the narrative of Christ’s birth.
The story is recorded in Matthew 2:13-18. No other references to it exist—not in the other Gospels nor in any secular history of the day. I’ve read the arguments some scholars put forward to discredit it as folklore. Part of me wishes I could embrace them. In my humble opinion, though, they don’t make their case. So, for me, it stays ... and makes me think.
How many children were slaughtered by Herod’s henchmen? Realistically, considering the population of Bethlehem at the time, the number of baby boys in that age range, even in that vicinity, would have been a couple dozen at the very most. Maybe less than 10. One explanation for the absence of any other historical verification is that this was too insignificant an event compared to Herod’s other atrocious acts. Undeserving, even, of a footnote. But we’d agree, wouldn’t we, that to utter the word insignificant within a thousand miles of even one child’s death is not only unthinkable, it is obscene. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t gloss over this dark weft in the Christmas story.
So I’ve been thinking about the other baby boys. And, as often happens when I spend time with the ancient stories, they begin to cast their shadows on my daily life. Let me explain.
Two springs ago, after many years of fruitless enticement, we were finally visited by a pair of Baltimore orioles. We’d watched dozens of orange halves turn black with mould until someone put us on to the magical power of grape jelly. This past spring we were jellied up and waiting—and they returned! The orioles’ daily visits made our early morning coffee in the sunroom a highlight of lockdown days. In fact, one morning there were four of them dancing around the feeder at once. We were practically dancing ourselves as we watched them through our large sunroom windows. The very next morning, I came downstairs to find my wife sitting in the front room with her coffee. She responded to my questioning gaze with a doleful face and an ominous “Go see what’s on the back deck.”
There on the deck, just two feet from the window, was a female oriole lying on its back with wings folded loosely at its sides, its head cocked tellingly to one side. My heart groaned as the awful realization dawned: the window through which we’d been watching the orioles was the cause of this one’s death. I slipped my sandals on and headed for the shed to find a shovel. When I nudged the body of the bird onto the blade, I marvelled at its weightlessness. I’d never seen one this close. I was sorry to be seeing it now. I carried it funereally to the far back corner of our yard where the wild blue violets have taken over and laid the lifeless body on the moss. Then I dug a hole deep enough, hopefully, to discourage nocturnal marauders, slid the edge of my shovel under the oriole, and tipped it into the hole. As I covered it with soil and gently tamped the earth, I felt a heaviness that in retrospect I’d call an accumulated sadness. We didn’t see the orioles for a day or so. When they did return, I found myself watching them through the deadly sunroom window with a sobered joy.
I don’t consider myself old, but I’m old enough. Six point six decades of living have taught me that every life contains moments, even seasons, of joy and sorrow. They are part of every life. In my work as a funeral celebrant I get to hear, and often tell, people’s stories. Every story I’ve heard, without exception, bears testimony to this truth. Laughter and weeping, mourning and dancing, peace and turmoil—choose your couplets. Life in this world—the world Jesus came into that starry night in Bethlehem—is a conundrum. The Christmas story is no exception.
So I’ve been looking out my sunroom window and thinking about the other baby boys, and about mothers refusing to be comforted because their children are no more. And, like you, I’ve been reading the stories of unmarked graves, burial sites that hold the stories of thousands of Indigenous children taken from their parents, never to be seen again. I’ve been listening, as I hope you have, to the sound of great mourning rising from Indigenous communities. I’ve been trying, as I hope you have, to imagine the unimaginable—the horrible pain of not knowing what really happened to your child or where their body is. With each new uncovering, the horror grows. This is part of our story as a nation. We have denied it for too long. We must think about it. We must allow it to cast its shadow on our daily lives and affect the way we live from now on.
Matthew’s account of the other boys of Bethlehem is an uncomfortable part of the Christmas story, one I’d rather turn my eyes from. But I need it, especially this year. It pushes me beyond the familiar to consider the others. And I need the push.
Stephen Kennedy spends most of his time and energy these days being a husband to his wife, Colleen, a dad to his four adult children, and a poppa to his five magnificent grandkids. Steve is the former editor of testimony, and his published works include short stories, editorials, articles, and poetry. He also serves as a funeral celebrant in his home community of Peterborough, Ont.
This article appeared in the October/November/December 2021 issue of testimony/Enrich, a quarterly publication of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. © 2021 The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. Photos ©istockphoto.com and AdobeStock.