***This post was first published on December 18, 2012***
The above picture is what twenty 5-year olds look like.
It’s Christmas time, which we all know, is the the most wonderful time of year. Joy to the World, and all that. And there is good reason for this, both culturally and theologically. We get to take time off from work to give and receive gifts and spend time with the ones we love. And as Christians, we celebrate the birth of Christ, and the love that the incarnation represents.
But it’s hard to get into the Christmas spirit as I imagine what took place in Connecticut, as a gunman cornered kindergartners in a room and shot them to death. Many of the children were the same age as my daughters. As I picked them up from school on Friday afternoon, I could not help but imagine that it was they who were trapped in that room as a killer pointed a gun at them and their friends and pulled the trigger. The horror of the thought took my breath away.
What a jarring juxtaposition with the merriment and joy of Christmas. It seems so completely contrary to the season and its spirit. But that’s not actually true because the full context of Christmas is also one of tragedy, not unlike Newtown. We have just chosen to ignore it.
If you know the Christmas narrative, you know that Magi from the east see the new star in the sky which heralds the birth of Christ, and so they journey to find this newborn child, and pay him homage with rich gifts. And so naturally they go to the place where a king would typically be born – the palace. They ask Herod, “Where is this newborn king, so that we pay him honor?” And this does not sit well with Herod, because after all…HE’S supposed to be king. But being a rather clever and bloodthirsty man, he hatches a plan. He tells the Magi that he does not know, but that if they do manage to find the child, they should let him know so that he too might pay homage. But of course, Herod wishes no such thing. His only desire is to kill Jesus.
The Magi find Jesus and give him their gifts of myrrh and gold, but are warned not to return to Herod. Herod discovers this and is furious. And in his fury he gives a command which will forever be known as the Massacre of Innocents: every boy under the age of 2 should be executed in the town of Bethlehem. Some doubt the historical veracity of this account, but almost all scholars do not doubt that it is certainly possible, even probable. After all, Herod even killed his own wife and two sons when they became a threat to his throne, so why would he hesitate in killing the sons of other people? And so that day, somewhere between 20 and 50 little boys under the age of 2 were slaughtered.
“The Massacre of Innocents“. That sounds so familiar right now.
And this is not the only tragedy that surrounds Christmas. Mary’s pregnancy was a scandal of the highest degree. Israel was an oppressed nation, brutalized by Antiochus Ephiphanes, then Herod the Great, and then the Roman Empire. The true and uncensored context of Christmas is one of scandal and suffering, and in this context, Newtown is a startlingly fitting Christmas story.
The only reason that that should seem strange to us is because as modern people, we have chosen to characterize Christmas as a generic holiday of generic joy, and nothing more. The way we celebrate Christmas, you would think that Mary gave birth in a sterile hospital, surrounded by supportive family and friends, while Israel flourished in a time of peace and prosperity. But the truth is really the opposite – Christmas took place steeped in tragedy and scandal.
I think our shallow conception of Christmas is a symptom of a larger illness: how thin and one-dimensional modern Christianity has become, and how we favor glib aphorisms and slick marketing over cold truth and hard wisdom. We have little patience for contradiction, and no tolerance for lament. Confession makes us feel uncomfortable, and honesty frowned upon. And so we take complex stories like Christmas and drain them of their fullness, preferring to chew on the husk of positive sentiment rather than taste bitterness in any way. In so doing, we relegate ourselves to being walking contradictions, followers of the Suffering Servant who are ourselves scandalized by suffering.
As much as it pains us to do so, we should know that there are vital and rare lessons that we learn when we face the full story of Christmas, and any other similar story or situation. One thing we take away is that it is normal in life for blessing and suffering to co-exist and intermingle with one another, the joy and tragedy of Bethlehem, blessing and suffering, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. We see that the existence of one does not preclude the existence of its opposite, contradicting what our simplistic and binary view of life would lead us to believe. Stories like Christmas lend depth to the expression of our faith, allowing us to hold both joy and mourning in tension, without contradiction.
We also learn to do something truly rare in our time, and that is to yearn for God. As modern day Christians, with our full bellies and full bank accounts, we so rarely yearn for God. Our songs of worship express such sentiment, and we close our eyes and lift our hands to engender the feeling, but actual longing is a rare thing. When we do yearn, especially during Christmas, we do so for material things, things that we desire but do not truly need, like the new iPad. In this way, our sense of longing is more closely related to coveting than anything else, the closest analogue that our modern mentality can easily grasp.
Because in the terrible context in which the first Christmas took place, the people of God didn’t just mildly hope for a Savior, but yearned for one. They longed desperately for a Messiah who would rescue them from the nightmare in which they found themselves. You see the depth of this longing in the response of Simeon and Anna when they first lay eyes on the child Jesus, a longing so deep that Simeon joyfully welcomes death because his eyes have beheld the one whom he calls, “The Consolation of Israel”. He can die in peace, he says, because the one whom he longed for has come, the Savior, the Messiah, God-With-Us. It was the suffering and pain of Israel which heightened that sense of yearning so acutely.
I experienced something very similar last Friday. That afternoon, I did not long for an iPad or for more stuff, but for answers. I cried for comfort and consolation, for something to make sense of it all. I longed for One to come and wipe every tear from our eyes, and to make all things new. I cried that God would save us from the horrors that we invite upon ourselves. Suffering has a way of taking our base covetousness and transforming it instead into holy yearning. Our paradigms shift, our priorities realign. We transcend materialism and superficiality and instead cry out from the depths of our souls, and long for something more: for a Savior.
We face a dark Christmas this year, there is no doubt. But so it was in the first Christmas as well. And rather than turning away from this bitter truth or ignoring its existence, we need to face it and wrestle with it. And as we do so, we come to realize how acute our need for Christ truly is, and that as dark as the night is, it is still not enough to extinguish the Light that comes from God.