12/23/2012 12:16 pm ET Updated Feb 22, 2013

The Innocents of Newtown and Christmas

In the wake of the Newtown shootings, this year's Christmas season has taken on a special poignancy. But it is not just the Nativity with its hope and promise that we should be remembering as we head toward the new year. There is a companion biblical story that should also hold our attention.

That companion story is the tragedy that follows after the magi have left their gifts and are on their way home: the massacre of the innocent children of Bethlehem depicted in the Book of Matthew.

This aspect of the Christmas story is one that we avoid thinking about as much as possible. It rarely makes its way into Christmas sermons. But this year there should be no ducking one of the darkest moments in the bible.

Religious leaders, meeting at the National Cathedral in Washington on the Friday before Christmas at the exact hour Adam Lanza, the Newtown gunman, opened fire, have already made their position on the need for gun control clear, and the deliberate symbolism of their gathering is worth dwelling on.

Just as Franklin Roosevelt once defended the compassion of his New Deal unemployment insurance by declaring, "Your Government is still on the same side of the street with the Good Samaritan," so gun-control regulation must be elevated to more than a political issue.

In the Book of Matthew the man responsible for the massacre of the children of Bethlehem is King Herod of Judea. When Herod hears that the child who will be the future king of the Jews was born in Bethlehem, he becomes fearful for his power as a ruler. He wants to kill the future king of the Jews, but he disguises his intentions, knowing how awful they are. He sends the magi to find the child destined to be the future king of the Jews, telling them to report back to him so that he may go and pay his respects.

The magi travel to Bethlehem by following the birth star, and after finding Jesus, they leave Him their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But the magi do not obey all of Herod's instructions despite their initial trust of him.

They are told in a dream not to report back to Herod, and they return home by a different route that makes it impossible for Herod to trace their path to Bethlehem. At the same time an angel warns Joseph of the danger from Herod and instructs him to flee to Egypt with Jesus and Mary.

Herod, after learning what the magi have done, decides that he has only one option left. He orders his soldiers to kill every child in Bethlehem under the age of two. It is a crazed and desperate decision, but Herod's soldiers do his bidding, and what follows is mass infanticide.

Such murderous behavior from Herod, like that from Adam Lanza in Newtown, could not have been predicted by any ordinary person, but what most deeply ties Herod's rampage to the Sandy Hook Elementary School killings is his need for enablers.

The difference is that the enablers of Adam Lanza--- those who have over the years stood in the way of gun control legislation--- did not act with deliberate malice. They acted by turning a blind eye to previous mass murders in the United States that have come before Newtown.

Who is worse---Herod's enablers or today's enablers of Adam Lanza? The answer does not finally matter. The end result is the same. In the Book of Matthew, the outcome to the massacre of the innocents is Rachel weeping for her dead children. In Newtown, Connecticut, the outcome is the tears of mother after mother burying her child.

No painter caught the horror of the biblical massacre of the innocents more compellingly than the 17th-century French master, Nicolas Poussin. In his stark "The Massacre of the Innocents" (1627-28), three figures dominate the foreground of his painting: a child about to be slaughtered, a Roman soldier with his sword upraised, his foot on the child's neck, and a mother, her face contorted in horror over the certain death that awaits her son.

In Poussin's painting the mother's helplessness, like that of the biblical Rachel, speaks to us today. Poussin's mother knows that even sacrificing her own life will not prevent her son from being murdered before her eyes.

The mass tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, dramatizes how such helplessness is not limited to a distant, biblical world. The 20 dead children at Sandy Hook Elementary School were as much in need of protection as Rachel's children, and like the Nativity itself, their vulnerability is a story worth recalling as we struggle to eliminate such tragedies in the future.

Nicolaus Mills is professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of The Triumph of Meanness: America's War Against Its Better Self.