About 40 years ago, a year (before I met my husband Barry), I was in West Africa to help two missionaries with the work among the illiterate women of the Bariba tribe. We lived in a rural area without electricity. Many of the young people were sent to school and were, therefore, able to read.
One of the missionaries had asked the young people to read the Christmas story and then play it out in church for the Christmas celebration. The church was not more than a tin roof, wooden benches, and a big church bell in a remote and desert-like place.
Initially, the tribe was animistic, which means they believed God had left the earth into the hands of spirits that had power over humans. These spirits were to be kept at peace. It was seen that the evil spirits caused sickness, death, and other disasters.
Sacrifices were made by slaughtering chickens and putting them on sticks with their blood behind their huts. This ritual was to keep evil spirits from their family. Poverty and the death of children were a daily reality for them. At that time, only 1 out of 5 children under the age of 5 years old would survive. This reality made them conclude that the spirits were especially eager to kill babies. It was taboo to pay too much attention to babies so the spirits would not notice them and would leave them alone.
So, when the young people performed Mary and Joseph in a manger, it was no big deal for them. They all gave birth and lived in huts made from dirt. They were rough with the doll that represented the Lord. What stood out to the tribe was Matthew 2:13-18. Most of us do not even want to read this part of the Christmas story.
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night, and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
When Herod realized that the Magi had outwitted him, he was furious and gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted because they are no more.”
Joseph was sleeping and was warned about Herod’s plot to kill Jesus, so he took Mary and the Child to Egypt, and Herod’s soldiers slaughtered the children under three years of age. When the tribe performed this scene, a group of young people with sticks made believe they were killing the young children in the community. People reacted by cheering, clapping, and screaming.
I was so confused and appalled and concluded that they had not understood anything about Christmas.
I honestly cried and felt homesick. It took a lot of processing and time before I could look at the Christmas story from their point of view. I came to understand that they were so thrilled that God was able to outsmart evil by having Mary, Joseph, and Jesus leave for Egypt. It took wrestling with the text and the cultural differences to realize that they were living so much closer to the hardships of the times when Jesus was born.
Our western culture has made this into a story of a romanticized birth with glitter and lights under a pretty tree with nice presents and food. None of that is to be found in the Christmas story nor in the bush of Africa.
The week before Christmas, my coworker and friend died unexpectedly. She was only in her forties. One of my other coworkers stated in her grief response, “Because of the Holidays, this seems to be so very wrong.”
Surprisingly enough, trauma, tragedies, abuse, betrayals, and death often happen around Christmas. Many people wish the Holidays would be over soon since it triggers all these pains and memories.
Let me draw your attention to verse 18: “The Women of Rama refused to be comforted because they are no more.” What a mysterious verse.
About 28 years ago, we had our 4th child, a baby girl named Joy; after three boys, we felt so much joy that Christmas. But then, on January 15th, we found her dead in her bed. She was only 2.5 months old.
In the following years, these verses spoke to me profoundly. I felt the temptation to REFUSE to be comforted. Choice is an integral part of entering into a healing process after loss, trauma, and betrayal. Can we trust the bigger picture of God’s plan of redemption? Can we take refuge in the Source of comfort? In the one who emptied Himself by being born in the likeness of man, humbled himself by becoming obedient to death on the cross?
Choice is an integral part of entering into a healing process after loss, trauma, and betrayal. Can we trust the bigger picture of God’s plan of redemption?
Last week when we sat together as staff after being told that our colleague died, I came to realize that there is a time when it is appropriate to refuse comfort. The women were weeping and wailing, which is a natural and healthy response to the pain of loss. In the shock of the event, we need to allow ourselves time to process the realization of what happened.
I don’t know how difficult your Christmas is or has been, but my hope for you would be for you to be able to sing, “Oh tidings of Comfort and Joy.” Sorrow and Joy dwell together in the brokenhearted. The paradox of His coming is there for us to embrace even in our loss. You are not alone. Take time to mourn and open yourself for the comfort that lies in the coming of the Redeemer. Tragedy and death are never the end of God’s story for you!
- Jeannette Laube, MA