Two Christmases ago, I was six months pregnant. The season of Advent, a time of waiting and expectation, has never made more sense to me.
Most of us know that Advent is a story of expectation. But of course, children aren’t the only things we anticipate, and waiting doesn’t just mean excitement. Those of us know who have apprehensively endured any impending event know that well. It also means fear, and hope, and maybe a little anxiety.
And if you’re like me, it’s a lot easier to get wrapped up in the here-and-now expectations of the holidays than it is to stop and feel the anticipation, hope, fear, and longing of Advent.
So I’ve had to ask myself: what are we, the church, preparing for? We think we know what’s coming. Most of us already know the story of the angels, Mary, Joseph, Jesus, the stable, the shepherds, and the wisemen. Or at least, we think we do. We aren’t excited, hopeful, or fearful about how it’s all going to play out.
But one part of the Christmas story is often overlooked, particularly in the commercialized, Western narrative. In the middle of Matthew’s telling of Christ’s arrival (Matthew 2), there is a tragic, upsetting passage.
Herod, seeking to eradicate any threats of another “king,” has boys two and under slaughtered. Yes. Right there in the middle of the Christmas story about hope, peace, and joy. King Herod slaughters innocent children in a desperate bid to preserve his throne.
And we are told that Rachel is weeping for her lost children. Rachel—one of the ancient Israelite matriarchs—is weeping and refusing to be consoled. The author puts readers in Rachel’s seat, using her to communicate intense grief.
Rachel’s appearance in the story is a nod to the Hebrew Bible and the book of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31). Jeremiah covers a long period of Israel’s history. After the rule of Solomon, Israel splits into two kingdoms because of a dispute about who should be king.
Some good rulers follow, but most of the kings are deemed “evil” by those prophesying. Eventually, the prophets tell us, the Northern and Southern kingdoms are both invaded and conquered. But “conquered” doesn’t mean destroyed. A remnant of the population stays in Israel, and a large number of Israelites are also taken captive by the conquering nations.
This is the rather hopeless reality into which Jeremiah speaks. Rachel, respected matriarch of Israel, embodies the nation’s anguish over beloved Israelites lost to the fighting, the conquering, and the exile.
A woman serves as a symbol of an entire people in this passage. Rachel gives voice to the pain and suffering of the nation. But Jeremiah doesn’t let it lie there. Rachel symbolizes more than suffering in both passages. She also indicates a promise.
The Lord says: “there is a reward for your work: they shall come back from the land of the enemy, there is hope for your future, your children shall come back to their own country.”
Rachel, refusing to be consoled, is met with hope and a promise from God.
We want to read a contemporary Christian, figurative interpretation that points to Christ back into the text. But we’re not there yet. We need to take the text on its own terms.
God responds to Rachel’s weeping (a symbol of Israel’s suffering) with the promise of the literal, physical return and renewal of her family—a return from exile. And the exiles do return. They eventually come back to worship, to rebuild their temple, to receive the promise God makes to Rachel.
And then Rachel shows up again in Matthew with the only understandable response to the destruction Herod visits on Israelite families. She weeps and refuses to be consoled. What could console you after the loss of your child?
Rachel’s presence in the story tells us something important: there is room for extreme sadness and inconsolable loss in the midst of the Christmas story—a story that is normally shared with hope and joy.
That grief comes to us through the eyes of a woman. It is significant that Matthew uses a matriarch of Israel to help readers grasp the dual narrative of sadness and joy in Advent. It is Rachel’s lens that helps us appreciate the complexity of the nativity story.
Loss and hope are meant to go hand-in-hand.
Rachel’s weeping teaches us that if the Advent of hope, peace, joy, and love doesn’t meet those who are in their deepest sorrow, it isn’t a Word worth waiting for.
And perhaps this is why it’s hard for me to feel truly expectant as we wait on Christ. Perhaps I don’t truly believe that Christ, the Word made flesh, will show up for me, my loved ones, and my community, in our pain and loss.
But then I recall the promise God makes to a weeping Rachel, a woman who has suffered a profound loss: our losses will be restored. The Word that we wait for has something to say to Rachel and to us in the midst of whatever brokenness we face.
In Jeremiah, Rachel experiences a physical renewal: the literal return of her children from exile. In using Rachel as an emblem of both suffering and hope, the author of Matthew implies that we, in Christ’s presence and promise, can expect the same. In bringing Rachel, a matriarch and woman, into the story, Matthew ensures that readers fully understand the weight of the Christmas story.
Yes, we can expect and anticipate God’s future kingdom on earth with no more suffering, pain, and sorrow. But we can also expect glimpses of that kingdom now. Not just in an anticipated eschatalogical future, but in the already-but-not-yet of our current world.
Perhaps this is the anticipatory message of Advent. This is what Rachel has to teach us this Advent.