Rachel Weeping – 28 December 2020
Here is a 14th century fresco that shows Rachel weeping. She is surrounded by swaddled infants, who have been been killed by Herod’s soldiers in the Massacre of the Innocents at Bethlehem. Tears flow from her eyes down her cheeks. In her weeping Rachel raises her arms in grief, she implores God for consolation, but there is insufficient for her. Her dress is black for mourning, her mantle red for the blood of those killed.
By tradition, Rachel, the matriarch of Israel (married to Jacob/Israel) who was long barren, and then died giving birth to her second son Benjamin, was buried outside of Bethlehem. After death she was understood to carry of role of interceding for her descendants, the Children of Israel, and wept for them at Bethlehem when they were taken into captivity in Babylon. The prophet quoted in Matthew 2 reminds the gospel readers of this link.
In the Christian tradition Mary is a second and new Rachel. She intercedes and weeps for all the children in God’s family. The understanding of her role, flowing from the life and ministry of her son, are alluded to in William Bird’s Lullaby, below.
The image is a fresco from St Marko’s Monastery in Markova Suscia, Macedonia.
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he 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.”
My sweet little Baby, what meanest Thou to cry?
Be still, my blessed Babe, though cause Thou hast to mourn,
Whose blood most innocent to shed the cruel king has sworn;
And lo, alas! behold what slaughter he doth make,
Shedding the blood of infants all, sweet Saviour, for Thy sake.
A King, a King is born, they say, which King this king would kill.
O woe and woeful heavy day when wretches have their will!
Lulla, la-lulla, lulla, lullaby.
Three kings this King of kings to see are come from far,
To each unknown, with offerings great, by guilding of a star;
And shepherds heard the song which angels bright did sing.
Giving all glory unto God for coming of this King,
Which must be made away — King Herod would Him kill.
Lo, lo, my little Babe, be still, lament no more:
From fury Thou shalt step aside, help have we still instore;
We heavenly warning have some other soil to seek;
From death must fly the Lord of life, as lamb both mild and meek;
Thus must my Babe obey the king that would Him kill.
But thou shalt live and reign, as sibyls hath foresaid,
As all the prophets prophesy, whose mother, yet a maid
And perfect virgin pure, with her breasts shall upbread
Both God and man that all hath made, the Son of heavenly seed,
Whom caitiffs none can ‘tray, whom tyrants none can kill.
William Bird, Lulla, lullaby, my sweet little baby, 1580