I have always heard people tell me that a painting, a song or a poem had caused them to cry. How can looking at a picture move someone to the point of tears? I never could understand what they meant until I stood in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. The Uffizi holds some of history's famous paintings. Works by Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Botticelli are world renowned. The rooms in which they hung were crammed with people trying to get a glimpse of these works while watchful guards made sure that no one got to close and the lines kept moving. As much to escape the crowds as anything, I walked into a near empty room with other paintings that are not so famous. I turned and to the right of the entrance hung a painting entitled The Massacre of the Innocents by Daniele da Volterra. You may not have heard of Volterra, but you are familiar with his work. He was the painter hired by the Pope to paint olive leaves over the private parts of Jesus and others in The Last Judgment that adorns the Altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Volterra's Massacre depicts the slaughter of male children under the age of two when Herod discovered he had been duped by the Magi (Matthew 2:16). As my eyes explored the painting, without warning I sensed a tear rolling down my cheek. It wasn't just a painting. In its brush strokes I could hear the voices of the pleading mothers, the scream of the infants and the angry snarls of Herod's soldiers. My tears became a sob. My mind recounted the story and the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “a voice heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children” (Jeremiah 31:15).
Throughout Scripture, Rachel represents suffering. Whether it is of the sufferings of the human condition or the cry of those living under oppression, Rachel's cry is the grief that only God can console. Rachel's grief refuses consolation from false comfort and facile explanations. She refuses to be consoled. It is a testimony that only God can speak a true word of hope. Only God can assure the suffering that there is a future. We are often encouraged by culture to witness the advent, the coming, of Christ in the warmth of a natal star. Rachel reminds us that Christ comes as the light in the shocking darkness that is sin and separation.
Advent has often been characterized as a mini-Lent in the preparations of the festival of Christ's nativity. It is the Nativity of God in flesh that shocks us into the awareness that the manager in Bethlehem is connected to the cross and tomb in Jerusalem. The hands of the infant Jesus will be pierced by the nails of human rebellion.
Upon sharing my experience with others I was asked if I looked away from Volterra's story of evil. When I looked away the tears would stop but I forced myself to look again. The sobs continued. I left the empty room trying to hide the redness of my eyes from curious patrons who probably wondered about my veiled emotions. The further I walked away, the screams of the mothers seemed to fade in the distance. Yet, their imprint on my memory is permanent. Although the Church's responsibility to stand strong in the face of evil and sin is certain, I know that the only hope for the world, my only hope is the one whose birth we are preparing to celebrate. The cries of Rachel's grief echo down throughout the centuries and through my tears I recognize that I am powerless. However, I am not without hope, for Christ has come and Christ will come again. May God bless you as we begin this Advent journey together.