Merry Christmas, everyone.
To our thinking, Reader, it was a sorrowful star, that star of Bethlehem. What good purpose for Jesus or for anyone it served we cannot discover. It stood over Bethlehem, however, with a dire meaning to the homes there. All the little children there, except the one that “fled” into Africa were soon to be little corpses. The star of Bethlehem has had some little tolerable poetry and a great deal of doggerel addressed to it; also a considerable quantity of religious and sentimental prose. It has, too, had a good deal of banter bestowed upon it, which yields less amusement however, than the laborious effort of some theologians to throw light upon it by semi-natural conjectures as to how it may have been produced. They seem to have been led into these ill-advised attempts to naturalize the Magi’s light from its being termed a star; forgetful of the fact that the Jews who did not know what or where the real stars are, but thought them to be little ornaments to our earth, would very naturally give that name to such an appearance.
There were, so it seems to us mortals, two ways open to Providence of shielding Jesus from harm. First, by staying the arm of Herod, and thus saving not only the life of Jesus, but also the lives of all his fellow little towns-children; or, as here given, flight on the part of the holy family, and abandonment, sauve que peut, for all the other little Bethlehemites. We are grieved to find that Providence chose the latter. And as we read this, we are compelled to say that our heart is not with the fugitives into Egypt, but entirely with the little victims and their parents thus left behind.
The visit of the Magi to Jerusalem proved to be a most calamitous occurrence. Their declaration in Jerusalem that a King of the Jews was just born excited Herod’s attention; led to the flight of Jesus and his parents from the country; and, worst of all, led to the dreadful massacre our author now proceeds to narrate. What useful, what conceivable purpose was served by this untoward announcement on the part of the Magi, is not discoverable. Jesus, for at least thirty years afterwards lived in seclusion up in Galilee, his very existence unknown in Jerusalem. And when he went there towards the end of his life, we shall look in vain for the slightest reference either by himself or by anyone else to what we here read. Anything more utterly purposeless than this visit to Jerusalem of the Magi and its pitiable consequences it would be difficult to imagine.
Were we told that Herod overtook these mischievous Magi and slaughtered them also, we think few readers would feel very much more grieved.
The first Christmas was not a festive one in Bethlehem. There was “lamentation and weeping and great mourning” there. Poor Bethlehem! The journey of Joseph and Mary from Nazareth for the special purpose that Jesus might be born in Bethlehem may have been an honour, but it was dearly bought.
With the amiable view, we suppose, of softening our pain at the narrative of this massacre, and its permission in such a connection, some commentators have ventured to offer us some considerations, intended, we gather, to be soothing to our hearts if not to our minds. These little victims were in reality favoured beings, we are told; they are now termed “the holy innocents,” though why more holy or more innocent than any other children dying young is not stated; they were by this means saved from the ills and trials of life; and they are now safely lodged in Heaven. Some doubt, however, seems to exist as to whether they continue babes in that happy land or no. We do not know what warrant there is for such assertions, nor do we know whether these commentators would like their own children to be favoured in a like way. From such a point of view it almost seems a matter of regret that the radius of the slaughter was not greatly extended. We know nothing in the world more truly sad than the wild arguments used by pious men in struggling with the ugly parts of their holy writ. For ourselves, we find a much more solid comfort as we think of this melancholy story. It is that it rests on the sole unsupported statement of our author. Of corroboration there is not a vestige. Learned Christian scholars have toiled zealously, not, as one might have hoped, to dispel this story, but we regret to say, to substantiate it. We are thankful to add without any success whatever.
From pages 12 ff. of A Plain Commentary on the First Gospel by an Agnostic, Williams and Norgate, 1891.
Goodnight, children, everywhere.