There is one more aspect of the text concerning the martyrdom of the innocents which needs to be touched upon before proceeding in our reading of Matthew’s Gospel. It is in fact opening up broad vistas of beauty which can only be hinted at here, with a broad gesture that entrusts to the reader further contemplation. This is, namely, the quotation that Matthew gives from Jeremiah 31:15 about Rachel weeping for her children, and refusing to be consoled, because they are no more. He is relating the mourning of the mothers in the regions around Bethlehem to the mourning of Israel as a whole—symbolized here by Rachel, the wife of Jacob-Israel, the mother of the twelve tribes. We again see here the mystery of corporate personality play itself out, in the way that the communal experience is made manifest in the experience of individuals, and the experience of individuals is significant for all. The pain and loss of these women is, in a sense, bringing the centuries of pain of all Israel before the eyes of the Lord God, and, in a profound way, into the embrace of the Infant Christ whose life is tied up intricately with the death of these children. For he came to share in our suffering and death, as said in the last reflection, and yet here these children suffer for him who shall someday suffer for them. And thus, at the heart of the time-transcending reality of the Paschal Mystery, they are already sharing in the fruits of life gained for them from the death of Christ.
The quotation from Jeremiah appears quite desolate, and it is telling that Matthew quotes it as he does, indicating a sober compassion for those who suffered because of this terrible event. But if the text in read in the context of the entire chapter of Jeremiah, chapter 31, one sees that this chapter is bathed in radiant light. We recommend reading the chapter in its entirety, since it is so rich it would merit many reflections which we do not have space for. Let us just quote a little here, and point out a few themes:
“At that time, says the LORD, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people.” Thus says the LORD: “The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness; when Israel sought for rest, the LORD appeared to him from afar. I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel! Again you shall adorn yourself with timbrels, and shall go forth in the dance of the merrymakers [literally translated: the playful!]. Again you shall plant vineyards upon the mountains of Samaria; the planters shall plant, and shall enjoy the fruit. For there shall be a day when watchmen will call in the hill country of Ephraim: ‘Arise, and let us go up to Zion, to the LORD our God.’” For thus says the LORD: “Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, ‘The LORD has saved his people, the remnant of Israel.’ Behold, I will bring them from the north country, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, the woman with child and her who is in travail, together; a great company, they shall return here. With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will make them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my first-born. Hear the word of the LORD, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands afar off; say, ‘He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd keeps his flock.’ For the LORD has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him. They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall be like a watered garden, and they shall languish no more. Then shall the maidens rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow. I will feast the soul of the priests with abundance, and my people shall be satisfied with my goodness, says the LORD. (Jer 31:1-13)
These words immediately precede the quotation given by Matthew. They sum up in a vivid way so many themes that we have touched upon in these reflections, and are probably one of the most important prophecies in the Old Testament. For they tell of a new exodus, in which God’s first-born, his precious son, exiled among the nations through sin, will be gathered back together again and welcomed into Zion-Jerusalem, there to rejoice, dance, and play without fear. Yes, the people who have been torn asunder, afflicted, and lost among their captors, will return home rejoicing. Indeed, they have found grace in the wilderness, the desert, having encountered there God’s everlasting love and faithfulness; and because of this faithfulness the are welcomed home again, to the renewal of the covenant. This is the “remnant,” those who have survived the trial by their longing for God’s redemption and their fidelity to him; and thus even their affliction proves to be fruitful, giving birth to newness of life where before there seemed to be only death.
This is what immediately follows on the words of Rachel weeping for her children: “Keep 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 for your future, says the Lord, and your children shall come back to their own country” (Jer 31:16-17). The children that Rachel mourns, that Israel mourns, shall come back to their own country. The exile of the people of Israel shall be overcome, and God, who is faithful to his promises, will restore his covenant, and indeed establish with his people a new covenant, not merely like the covenant of the first exodus, when he brought them out of the land of Egypt, but one of a new exodus from slavery to sin—the deepest exile from the truest home—in which he will guide them into the sanctuary of their hearts, the promised land of intimacy with him, and write his very law upon their hearts (see Jer 31:31-33). Yes, this is precisely what all of these words in Jeremiah are preparing for! They are indicating the joy of the new covenant that God will establish, which shall surpass the exodus of old, not only in the stability of Israel’s restoration but in the very manner of this liberation, in the nature of this home, in the depth and security of this covenant.
Matthew surely knows what he is doing. He is indicating, by offering this quote as an illustration of the martyrdom of the children of Bethlehem, that with the coming of Jesus Christ the new covenant is dawning. Even the sufferings that surround his life, even the birth-pangs of humanity in which he shares to the full and takes up within himself, are only part of this great renewal that God is working for his people, to welcome them home rejoicing, where every tear shall be wiped away and there shall be ceaseless dancing in the joy of his undying love.
“With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I shall bring them back.” This is the pathway of our life, is it not? Even amid the sorrows and sufferings of this life, God has come to meet us. He has come to meet us because he is Love, and this immeasurable Love cannot remain unfaithful to itself, which has pledged to us undying fidelity in a covenant bond stronger than marriage. And so he walks with us on the paths of life, encircling us in his tenderness and care even in our darkest places, mourning for us and with us in our weeping, and drawing us, through everything, deeper into the home that he has provided for us: the Church, his reign, his kingdom. Here the woman encircles the man (see Jer 31:22), the Bride of the Son of God mothers every human heart and teaches each one of us what is means, in her, to be bride, to be spouse of the Bridegroom-Son, and, through this nuptial union, to experience ever more fully the joy of adoption: resting with the Son in the bosom of the Father, rejoicing with him and in him in the bliss of sonship or daughterhood, in the cherishing gaze of the tenderest Father and in the sweet kiss of the Spirit who is shared at the heart of the divine life.