We relish the soft, airbrushed edges of our Christmases that blend the Middle Eastern night of magi and shepherds overseeing the birth of Jesus in peaceful Bethlehem with Currier & Ives snowscapes, carolers and family festivities.
Certainly the shattering of these pastoral Christmas scenes couldn’t be any more brutal than this year, with the national grieving of the massacre of children who were still navigating the move from nap time to school time. While there are frequently holiday stories that cut against the cultural and spiritual flow of the season, it is difficult to recall the reality of evil interrupting so abruptly the merriment and winter joy of Christmastime.
For 26 families, the interruption of Christmas is, of course, secondary to the destruction of life as they have known it. We can only pray that the reality of a living Christ will be solace to the Christian families, and that God will use the new year to renew the hopes of all.
There is much sadness in our world at any time of the year, and it is sharpened for those who are struggling with pain and suffering, with emptiness and loss, at Christmas. There are many more families grieving the loss of children, taken abruptly in the streets of Chicago or Detroit, or slowly in the pediatric wings of hospitals everywhere. There is seemingly endless unemployment and underemployment and the sickening grind of dwindling resources and diminishing dreams. There is the loss of love and the loss of ambition.
And if there is no joy in your personal world it is hard to appreciate choirs who are insisting that there is.
For those of us who have the luxury of contemplating the plan of God in a time of obscene senselessness, rather than the stark barrenness of a child gone, we can look at the truth of the Christmas story instead of the stained glass images of our modern Christmas traditions for a better perspective.
This was perhaps best captured by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a Christian, who wrote two days after the Newtown massacre:
The only thing that my religious tradition has to offer to the bereaved of Newtown today — besides an appropriately respectful witness to their awful sorrow — is a version of that story, and the realism about suffering that it contains.
That realism may be hard to see at Christmastime, when the sentimental side of faith owns the cultural stage. But the Christmas story isn’t just the manger and the shepherds and the baby Jesus, meek and mild.
The rage of Herod is there as well, and the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable — the shadow of violence, agony and death.
In the leafless hills of western Connecticut, this is the only Christmas spirit that could possibly matter now.
The reality of the incarnation, the embodiment of God, in the very midst of brutality and violence, from the murdering of innocents in search of the Christ-child in Bethlehem to a crucifixion at a Jerusalem crossroads, sets the Kingdom of God squarely in the grisly realities of every age rather than the in the star lit glow of advent celebration.
And that is a truth that should not dampen the great celebration of O Holy Night, or even the secular enjoyment of winter fun and holiday gift exchange, but rather put all of it in divine perspective. The world of sadistic evil intertwined with breathtaking goodness is the world as we know it and has always been known.
As such, for it to be true that God is with us–the promise of Christmas–it must also be true that He is with us on days when evil prevails, as well as on days of joy and promise. He brings Relevance and Redemption to every space and time, and He has ever since His family fled the murderous designs of a jealous despot and became refugees in Egypt.
The good news is that it is the Desire of God that we have an infusion of joy that finds the depth of the greatest suffering.
Joy to the World, the Lord is come. Life triumphs over death. Good triumphs over evil. It’s hard to see it from here. And it was as hard to see it in Bethlehem when Jesus was born as it is today. It is the real world God decided to save. This is Christmas.