Good thing the son of elderly Elizabeth and Zechariah – commonly known as John the Baptist – was born in a “Judean town in the hill country” (Luke 1:39) and not “in and around Bethlehem” (Matthew 2:16).
Otherwise, pregnant Elizabeth would have shrieked a much different cry than the one she loudly shouted when she heard the greeting of the recently impregnated Mary from Nazareth.
And it wasn’t just Elizabeth who was excited to hear and see Mary. The story goes that the baby in Elizabeth’s womb “leaped” as soon as it heard Mary’s voice. As Elizabeth confessed to Mary:
Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb … For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. (Luke 1: 42, 44)
That, in turn, causes Mary to cry out in song:
My soul magnifies the Most High,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
who has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant.
And the remainder of Mary’s psalm would, then and over the centuries, bring cries of joy to those who, otherwise, would have to live without hope:
God has shown strength with God’s arm,
and has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty…
(Luke 1:42-43, 51-53)
These cries from Elizabeth and Mary and all those of low estate are the joyous cries responding to the presence and incarnation as well as the work and ministry of a just and merciful God.
But only months later, after the births of sons to Elizabeth and Mary, the other cry – that much different cry – came from mothers “in and around Bethlehem.”
That was because the birth of Mary’s son, a child named Jesus, was seen as a threat to the rule of a king, a threat interpreted to be so serious as to cause the king to send his armed forces into the area “in and around Bethlehem” to kill – get this – every single child two years of age and younger. All of them!
John and Jesus were spared: John because he was still with his parents far away from Bethlehem, and Jesus because his father, Joseph, was warned in a dream to flee to Egypt.
The deaths of all those other children, which became known as the “Slaughter of the Innocents,” was seen, tragically, as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Jeremiah. It was the cry of Rachel for the butchery of her babies:
A voice was heard in Ramah,
Wailing and loud lamentations,
Rachel weeping for her children;
She refused to be consoled, because they are no more.
(Jeremiah 31:15, Matthew 2:18)
So, in the space of just a few days, a few weeks, a few months: two radically different cries: cries of overwhelming joy and hope and cries of unbearable sadness and despair.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.