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The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned. Isaiah 9:2
A cry was heard in Ramah –
weeping and great mourning.
Rachel weeps for her children,
refusing to be comforted,
for they are dead. Matthew 2:18
“Why did this have to happen at Christmas?”
The person who said this was visibly shaken by the events at Shady Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut just two days before. A few of us were standing around after our worship gathering, processing the tragedy together – the loss of 20 young children, plus half a dozen teachers, a young man’s mother and the young man himself.
The fact that it happened at Christmas seemed to make things worse somehow. Many residents of Newtown are taking down Christmas decorations after the tragedy, feeling that celebration was wrong in the face of such terrible grief and loss.
But the comment caught me off guard and has haunted me since. As I thought about the Christmas story and read the biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth, I found a haunting feeling that the events were fitting.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that I find them to be right. I’m not suggesting they were anything short of evil and tragic. These events belong with the darkest of human tragedies. Which is why I think they fit with the Christmas story.
Again, I must clarify. I say they fit with the biblical stories, not with our celebrations of this holiday season. We’ve sanitized Christmas. We’ve commercialized it and covered it with bright wrapping paper and tinsel. We’ve lit it with thousands of lights to drive out the darkness. We’ve covered our greed with a thin veneer of generosity to make ourselves feel better. After all, everyone gets what they want and no one ever gets put on the naughty list.
This is not the biblical story, however. The story of the star shining and angels piercing the dark night with light and song are set against the backdrop of darkness. Isaiah says it is the people who are walking in darkness who have seen a great light. It’s exactly the depth of the darkness that makes the sudden, unexpected eruption of light so spectacular.
Where did we get the idea that Christmas was all light and warmth? We celebrate the light coming into the world at the darkest time of year for a reason (despite the fact that this was probably not the season when he was born). The events were full of anxiety and fear and pain. Mary feared for her life with the announcement that she’d be with child prior to her marriage to Joseph. Both the parents endured hardship to travel far from home, with no welcome and no place to stay, displaced by the machinations of the oppressive Roman Empire. And the birth was not the brief, exciting climax of a Lifetime movie. It didn’t take place in a sanitized hospital or even the comforts of a home birth. The whole story is fraught with danger, hardship and darkness.
The Light of the World stepped down into our miserable, desperate darkness. And the darkness didn’t understand it and hated it and tried to smother it. And humans, so used to the dark and many aligned with it and complicit with it, wanted to stay in the dark. Christmas is the violent invasion of light into our dark world, the opening salvo in a life or death struggle that won’t end until darkness expends its full power on this baby and finds itself exhausted and powerless against the Easter dawn.
Shortly after the birth of Jesus, one agent of the darkness, Herod, did his best to put out the light. He tried to find this newborn threat to his power and prevent him from ever growing up. When he couldn’t locate the one child, he decided to kill them all, resulting in one of the most horrific scenes of the Bible which has come to be called ‘the slaughter of the innocents.’ Every boy two years old and under throughout Bethlehem and the surrounding regions was killed. One man’s fearful attempt to shut out the light resulted in the weeping of many in Bethlehem.
But the baby was protected. God sent a dream to Joseph as a warning and the little family fled to Egypt.
But why were no other parents given dreams? If God could protect one, why couldn’t he save them all? Why was God silent that night? Why allow the weeping?
Any answers we could dare to offer are cold comfort at best, heretical blasphemies at worst. Seeking to reconcile a loving God with the death of children is dangerous ground.
So this Christmas season we are left asking – why were no parents in Newtown given a warning? Why weren’t at least twenty fathers or mothers woken in the dead of night with a certainty that they should not send their child to school that fateful Friday? Why was God silent that night?
Why allow the weeping?
These questions are painful. The events that force us to ask them are unimaginable, unfathomable, unreasonable.
For we live in a dark world, and weeping and asking why should be our natural response.
This most recent slaughter of innocents, unfortunately, is more characteristic of our world than we want to admit. Cause we don’t look at the darkness, especially here where our privilege and wealth and power can keep the darkness at bay, sanitized and filtered for us through the bright lights of our flat screen TVs, computer monitors and smart phones.
The darkness of wars across the world – genocides in Africa and wars for freedom against tyrants in the middle East (with darkness on both sides).
The darkness of slavery, which is alive and well in our day, effecting countless thousands, mostly young girls forced into sex trades.
The darkness of disease and death, with millions dying of AIDS and of other diseases, many of which are easily preventable and treatable.
The darkness of mental illness, including the epidemic of depression and loneliness that is spreading, particularly in the places of greatest affluence.
The darkness of poverty as so many go without while we live our wasteful, extravagant lives – especially at Christmas, as ironic and tragic as that must seem to the one whose birth we celebrate.
We are shocked and scared because the darkness has defied our festive strings of lights and somehow made it into our homes, despite our best efforts to keep it at bay. We are left with disturbing questions and an even more disturbing lack of answers.
Reminded of the darkness we’ve tried to ignore or forget or deny, we are left to join our voices with the keening coming out of Connecticut. This Christmas, we are all citizens of Newtown – and Syria, and Gaza, and the Sudan and the brothels of Thailand and everywhere else the darkness is thriving. This, too, is fitting and necessary in a dark world.
I watched the president wipe away tears as he spoke to the nation and I thought it fitting. And when he read the names of those children two days later at the interfaith vigil, I wept with him and with the families of the victims. I’m weeping now as I right this.
And this Christmas season, I think the tears are fitting. They remind us of the darkness that still fights back against the light. They remind us why that baby had to be born in the first place. They remind us that God didn’t stay aloof from the darkness and the pain and the weeping, but chose to enter into it, to defy it, to be broken by it and thus to break its power. They remind us that our hope is in the day when God says, “Enough!”
For there will be a day when He stops weeping with us and finally restores His world to what is was meant to be. A day when this dark world is flooded with His light so that we no longer need the sun because God’s light will banish all darkness. A day when we don’t need to gather in candle lit churches for heartbreaking funerals, for there will be no temples – we won’t need to search for God in any buildings, He will be present with us everywhere. A day when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.
Until that day, we will always have reason to weep. Until that day, we will always have reason to ask why God allows the weeping.
And this Christmas, my tears are drying on my face un-wiped, like unanswered prayers.