When Herod orders his men to massacre every child under two in Bethlehem and its surrounding districts, Matthew makes what might to us be a rather obscure reference: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loudly lamenting: it was Rachel, weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted because they were no more’ (Matthew 2:18).
This reference is to the prophet Jeremiah (31:15). Believe it or not, in this strange passage hides a key to understanding Catholicism’s devotion to Mary as Our Lady Help of Christians.
In his book Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary (2018), Brant Pitre offers a fresh, yet surprisingly ancient, take on the significance of Mary in the life of Christians through the centuries. In Matthew’s Gospel, and elsewhere, Pitre argues, Mary stands as the New Testament fulfilment of Rachel, the ancient matriarch of the tribes of Israel.
Understanding Rachel can help us a great deal in understanding why we treat the Blessed Virgin as a source of spiritual comfort and help.
Rachel was the beloved wife of Jacob and mother to the twelve tribes of Israel. Although only two of the twelve sons of Jacob were hers biologically, the Old Testament suggests that Rachel was seen to be the mother of Israel as a whole.
Genesis recounts the famous story of Jacob falling in love with Rachel and working seven years in order to win her in marriage. After Rachel’s father, Laban, tricks Jacob into marrying Leah instead, Jacob works seven more years to marry the woman his heart truly loved (Genesis 29:15–30).
Upon marrying, however, Rachel discovers she is barren, a source of deep grief for her (30:1).
The Scriptures say that after a time, ‘God remembered Rachel; he heard her and opened her womb’ (30:22). She would then have two children: Joseph (who would be sold into slavery by his brothers) and Benjamin. It was while giving birth to Benjamin that she died:
They left Bethel, and while they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel began to be in labour, and her pains were severe … Rachel died and was buried on the road to Ephrath, at Bethlehem. Jacob raised a monument on her grave, and this is the monument of the tomb of Rachel which is still there today (35:16–20).
The tomb of Rachel, strangely located by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, has always been a source of comfort for the children of Israel.
After the destruction of the First Temple in 423 BC, the Jews would be taken into Babylonian captivity, passing Rachel’s tomb along their journey. In fact, Jewish commentaries on the Bible identified this as the reason she was buried there instead of with her family: God was looking ahead to the scattering of his people.
During the Babylonian exile, God spoke to his people through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, lamenting and weeping bitterly: it is Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted for her children, because they are no more’ (Jeremiah 31:15).
In this passage, God responds to Rachel’s weeping:
Yahweh says this: Stop your weeping, dry your eyes, your hardships will be redressed: they shall come back from the enemy country. There is hope for your descendants: your sons will come home to their own lands (Jeremiah 31:16–17).
For this reason, Jewish people have always seen in Rachel a comforting mother; a woman who, though long dead, continues to suffer and offer prayers and consolation to her children.
This was not understood simply in a symbolic or poetic way, either. There are many ancient rabbinic commentaries depicting Rachel not merely as an ancient matriarch, but as a spiritual intercessor to whom the children of Israel can pour out their hearts.
To this day, Jewish people continue to visit her tomb, and to invoke her intercession.
The Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner has described Rachel as ‘Mary’s ancient Israelite counterpart’. She stands as a surprising link through which the Jewish people—and others—can understand the Roman Catholic devotion to the Blessed Virgin.
The most ancient Christian prayer invoking Mary’s intercession that we have is the Sub tuum praesidium from the third century, which, in English, reads:
We fly to thy protection,
O holy Mother of God.
Despise not our petitions in our necessities,
but deliver us always from all dangers,
O glorious and blessed Virgin.
In the same way that Rachel was a spiritual mother weeping and interceding for her children throughout their bloody history, Mary has been seen by the Church as fulfilling that role for the new Israel, the Church. On the road to their true homeland, Mary stands as a constant source of consolation and prayer, as someone who has been touched by the darkest moments of the human experience and can therefore offer the spiritual maternal affection God’s children crave.
The solemnity of Our Lady Help of Christians is celebrated by the Catholic Church on 24 May.
Melbourne Catholic29 February 2024
Melbourne Catholic28 February 2024