On the fourth day of Christmas, we remember the Holy Innocents, whose story is recorded in Matthew 2:
Losing a child is horrible. Losing a child to murder, especially a purge as senseless as the one Herod instigated, must be unspeakably painful. So horrific was Herod’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem that nearly six hundred years earlier, Jeremiah recorded God’s awareness of it thus:
Thus says the LORD:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
Lamentation and bitter weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children,
Refusing to be comforted for her children,
Because they are no more.”
–Jer. 31:15 (NKJV)
Ramah is five miles north of Jerusalem, which puts it twelve miles away from Bethlehem! Can you imagine hearing screams like that from twelve miles away? It hurts even to think about.
But the prophecy doesn’t end there:
Thus says the LORD:
“Refrain your voice from weeping,
And your eyes from tears;
For your work shall be rewarded,” says the LORD,
“And they shall come back from the land of the enemy.
There is hope in your future,” says the LORD,
“That your children shall come back to their own border.”
Now, my study Bible notes that the immediate application for Jeremiah’s day had to do with the impending Babylonian exile, since Ramah was probably a deportation center. But I can see a couple of applications for the Christmas story as well. In a narrow sense, Mary and Joseph carried Jesus into exile in Egypt until Herod was dead and there was no longer a threat to His life; then He did “come back to [His] own border.” In a more general sense, though, “the land of the enemy” could be interpreted as the realm of death. Unlike most martyrs, the children slaughtered in Bethlehem were wholly innocent and didn’t even have a choice as to whether they would lay down their lives for Christ. God knew that, and He was not about to cast them out for all eternity–as my buddy the Pearl poet put it, “The innocent is ay safe by right.” Soon Jesus would in turn die for them and bring them “back to their own border” in Heaven. That’s not always a consolation a parent will readily accept in the face of not having a beloved babe present in this life, as Pearl eloquently illustrates… but the poet also eloquently illustrates that life in Heaven is orders of magnitude better than anything this world has to offer.
And that reminds me of Aragorn’s parting words to Arwen:
“I speak no comfort to you, for there is no comfort for such pain within the circles of the world. The uttermost choice is before you: to repent and go to the Havens and bear away into the West the memory of our days together that shall there be evergreen but never more than memory; or else to abide the Doom of Men.”
“Nay, dear lord,” she said, “that choice is long over. There is now no ship that would bear me hence, and I must indeed abide the Doom of Men, whether I will or I nill: the loss and the silence. But I say to you, King of the Númenoreans, not till now have I understood the tale of your people and their fall. As wicked fools I scorned them, but I pity them at last. For if this is indeed, as the Eldar say, the gift of the One to Men, it is bitter to receive.”
“So it seems,” he said. “But let us not be overthrown at the final test, who of old renounced the Shadow and the Ring. In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory. Farewell!”
“Estel, Estel!” she cried, and with that even as he took her hand and kissed it, he fell into sleep.
–J. R. R. Tolkien, “The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen” (Return of the King Appendix A)
Aragorn’s nickname, Estel, is one of the Elvish words for hope–but it’s hope of a particular kind, fearless trust based solely in God’s character. That’s the kind of hope Aragorn’s trying to counsel Arwen to hold onto, and that’s also the hope Jeremiah’s prophecy offered to the mothers of Bethlehem, made possible by the one Baby Herod couldn’t kill.