Tragedies happen all the time, though few in North America are as large-scale and horrific as the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut yesterday. No matter who was involved or when it happened, this would have grabbed headlines simply because it’s one of the worst mass murders in U.S. history. But there’s something about tragedies right before Christmas, especially if they involve children, that awakens in us an additional sense of moral outrage.
We cling, against all evidence, to a belief that Christmas ought to be a time of happy, untroubled innocence, that we all ought to be our best selves and that nothing terrible should happen for a few charmed weeks. When something awful does happen — whether it’s a mass murder that draws the world’s attention, or a local house fire that kills a family with children right before the holidays — compounded with our natural and appropriate grief is a feeling that Christmas itself has been violated.
We hear a lot about putting Christ back into Christmas but not much, in my experience, about putting Herod’s massacre of the innocents back into Christmas. Cozy Nativity scenes make it too easy to forget that God came in human form into a world full of violence and evil, into an occupied country under military rule, into a town soon to be the site of a horrific slaughter of young children. A slaughter carried out not by a single evil madman — or rather, carried out by a single evil madman with all the power of the State at his command.
The true incarnational teaching of Christmas is that Jesus was born not only into this world, but because of this world. Because of human evil, and terrible things that happen even though they should not.
Once upon a time the Christian church had a period of four weeks of fasting and reflection leading up to the celebration of Christ’s birth, four weeks of reflecting on exactly these terrible things and realizing how deep is our personal need, and this world’s need, of a Savior. It was called Advent and we are now about three-quarters of the way through it. In popular culture, Christmas has been retained but Advent has been abandoned, which means that even the most earnest Christ-centred Christians are often celebrating the coming of a Savior into a dark world without pausing to glance at the darkness or appreciate how truly dark it is. The blare of our Christmas lights has abolished the darkness of Advent so thoroughly that we are extra-shocked when terrible things continue to happen in the weeks before Christmas, just as they do all year long.
I’m on record as taking a very pluralistic approach to winter holidays: celebrate whatever you want, in whatever way is meaningful to you; wish me Happy Holidays or Season’s Greetings or Merry Christmas as it pleases you; string up your coloured bulbs to celebrate the fact that light comes in the midst of darkness whether or not you share my particular religious beliefs. I have no interest in dictating how, when, or what anyone else should celebrate at this time of year. But I will also go on record as being predictably, boringly Christian in my own beliefs: any belief system that claims the darkness is not real or dangerous, that humans are all essentially good and not really in need of any saving, is not a belief system I can sign on for. I believe that sin is real, evil is real, that we need a Savior and that Jesus was that Savior. That’s my creed.
That said, we Christians have a lot to answer for in our claim that Jesus really did bring light into the world’s darkness. Because — hey, it’s still pretty dark in here, isn’t it? Events like yesterday’s shooting confront us with that unavoidable fact. Obviously there are a lot more good humans than bad ones in the most obvious sense — for every mad gunman who walks into a school and starts shooting kids, there are millions of teachers who show up to schools every day to help and love and care for kids. But the problem of human evil is so persistent and intractable, and so entrenched into the systems of our society, that we can’t treat it as a single aberration. We can cry over a single incident of violence and hatred, but once we start piling up all the reasons we have to cry, we get overwhelmed pretty quickly.
Jesus’ own Jewish nation at His own time examined His (and His followers’) claim that He was the Messiah, the promised Deliverer, and the majority of them said, “This getting-crucified business is not what we expect of a Messiah. We’ll wait for someone who can really deliver us from evil.” So they waited for a true Messiah — who still hasn’t shown up.
As for those who believed Jesus’ claims, they said, “The first advent was only the forerunner — He’ll be back to truly establish a just and peaceful kingdom.” Two thousand years later, we’re still waiting.
Some Christians have shifted the focus from Jesus’ literal Second Advent to our call to establish His Kingdom here on earth, by working under the power of His Spirit to create a more peaceful, just world here and now. But to be honest, that’s not working out so well either.
No matter what our beliefs about Jesus-as-Messiah, we have to confess that God has not yet fulfilled the promise of Christmas. You can blame Him or you can blame us, but either way, this is still a dark world, filled with tremendous suffering. Honest people of any belief system — and this includes not just Christians and Jews, but humanists and Buddhists and Muslims and everyone who clings to any kind of hope (everyone but the extreme nihilists who presumably figure everything is working out much as they expected it would) have to admit that in however long we have been building civilizations on this planet, we have not yet worked out a perfect society free of selfish violence. Nor has any God delivered such a society. We are still, much of the time, in darkness that covers the earth, and gross darkness the people (Isaiah 60:2).
If Advent does not recognize this darkness, then Christmas is meaningless. It’s just stringing up coloured lights in the face of the kind of violence that leads someone to bring an assault weapon into an elementary-school classroom, and saying, “Look! The lights are so pretty! Ignore the massacre!” Christmas is about hope, but the very essence of the concept of hope is that if we are hoping, something must be wrong. We must not have what we want — a peaceful, just world, safety for our children — if we are still hoping to be saved.
None of the responses people have to tragedies like this are wrong. It’s good to argue about gun control and treatment for mental illness — if our society is not debating these things we are not engaging with the realities of suffering. It’s good to hug your kids a little tighter the night after a tragedy; to be grateful for what you have. It’s good — essential, even — to think of and pray for those who have suffered unimaginable losses. It’s good to be angry at those who commit evil deeds. It’s good to focus on the positive where you can, on heroic teachers and rescue workers and people who bring light in the midst of darkness.
As Christians, tragedies like this should make us humble, because we claim to have The Light yet so much darkness remains. Advent should make us humble. It commemorates not only the thousands of years before Jesus, when the world waited for a Savior, but all the waiting we have done since then. Our pagan ancestors waited in the darkness of winter and celebrated the return of the light. We wait in the darkness of a sinful world and await a promise that has been given but not completely fulfilled. This year we have been reminded, in the midst of the Advent season, how real that darkness is.
Deliver us from evil.