CHRISTMAS AMID TRAGEDY
Fix in us Thy humble home;
Rise, the Woman's conquering Seed,
Bruise in us the Serpent's head.
Adam's likeness now efface:
Stamp Thine image in its place;
Second Adam, from above,
Reinstate us in thy love.
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
Glory to the Newborn King.
-Hark, the Herald Angels Sing
It was interesting reading various blogs around the net this week as people reeled in shock and horror from the insane shootings of kindergarteners and first graders in Connecticut. Many people have tried to make a political point or advance their agenda with this event, to one degree or another, and I suppose that is inevitable. But one theme that kept coming back up is how the events made it hard to celebrate Christmas or talk about the holiday season because of sadness, mourning, or just shock.
And that's really quite sad to me because it reveals how much our culture - even many Christians - have reduced Christmas to giving gifts, parties and decorations instead of what it is really about. I suppose that's why there are all those "reason for the season" comments and pictures around this time of year, but really, Christmas should be celebrated all the more in the face of tragedy and horror.
The entire point behind Christmas is to celebrate the birth of Christ, that's what the -mas suffix means (we don't use it for anything else these days, but a lot of birth events were celebrated like that in medieval times like Michaelmas). Now, before you yawn and move on to the next page, think about that a moment.
The birth of Jesus Christ was about salvation, grace, joy, peace, and hope. Not campaign slogan hope, not hope as a cliche, but real hope for real glory and peace. The birth of Jesus Christ was because of things like the evil murder of children.... however old they happen to be. Jesus himself was the target of a demented evil murderer as a child, and his family fled to a neighboring country to survive. King Herod, desperate to stop the rise of a foretold king he thought would replace him (or his children) murdered every child of 3 years and younger born in Bethlehem.
See, when the wise men visited Herod, following a celestial event, they asked about a king born in the region, and knew it had happened about 3 years previous to their arrival. No, the wise men weren't there for the birth of Jesus the Christ, they were there years later, in the winter. When Herod heard about this, he became alarmed - a king born, with a celestial event that attracted scholars and masters of astronomy from a thousand miles away? This had to be dealt with.
So Jesus' life started with horror as babies were slaughtered all across an entire region just to prevent a rival king from rising up from the Bethlehem area. It didn't work, but the thing Herod - and most people of the day (and even some today) didn't understand is that King Jesus wasn't born to conquer regions and rule an earthly realm. He wasn't there to fight oppression and bring Israel freedom, he was born to deal with the problems behind why oppression and terrible things happen.
This is the main flaw with many reactions to the Connecticut shootings. Many people are crying and praying to the government to fix everything, if only there was a law against shooting children in schools! It would stop such an event! There are calls for gun bans and gun control and people in other nations, ignorant of guns and America, are mocking the country and baffled anyone would want to be able to protect their kids from murderers with their own weapons.
The problem is, banning guns doesn't do away with psychotic murderers. It just makes a certain method of killing more difficult to obtain. If there was a sudden rise of killings with potatoes, banning potatoes would not solve that problem. The problem isn't with the tool, its with the motivation behind the deed.
And that's why Jesus Christ was incarnated, why He came to earth to begin with. Jesus was born to deal with what's behind the evil in the world, not its symptoms or actions. If you have a brain tumor, the aspirin might bring relief from the headaches, but its not going to save your life or deal with why you get the headaches to begin with. What you need is something radical, risky, and shocking to be done. You need that tumor out of your head.
And that's the scope we're dealing with on earth today. Putting away murders or banning guns, arming teachers or home schooling kids won't get rid of the evil in the world. What's needed is a savior, someone who will bring an end to sin, to what makes the evil happen to begin with. Behind those horrific acts through all of history is a cancer of the soul that all humanity suffers from; that cancer is sin. We all rebel against what is right and good and true and beautiful because we are sinful by nature, it is part of who we are.
What we need is someone to save us from that sin, not its consequences and results. The briars and horrors of life are because sin exists within us. There is no "noble savage" living in peace and harmony apart from the corrupting evils of civilization; we can't run away to a better place or time because we bring the evil with us. Its like a horrific plague we carry, wherever we go, that horror lurks within us all. Bad people don't happen because of bad surroundings or culture. The bad is inside them - and us - waiting for a way to manifest its self.
Jesus Christ was born to live a perfect life of absolute sinlessness so we could have a hope of salvation. That perfect life is what is needed, that's what justice demands: no sins. And because we have sinned, justice demands punishment as well. So Jesus came not just to live on earth but to die. And the doing and dying of Jesus Christ fulfilled that justice and brought a hope, a hope that we can finally be without sin, finally find peace, finally find justice, finally see an end to tears and sorrow and loss and death.
I've gone into much more detail explaining this in the Emptiness and Light piece I linked above, so you can read that if you're curious what exactly I mean by all that but what's significant here is something few people stop to consider.
Every religion on earth but one teaches you save yourself. You either work your way to salvation and paradise through specific deeds, such as the seven pillars of Islam, or you detach yourself from the world and embrace your insignificance and the illusion of life such as in Buddhism and Hinduism, or you keep commandments like in Judaism, and so on. They all boil down to one thing: law; you do this and you achieve nirvana or get your virgins in paradise, or what have you. All religions, everywhere on earth, but one.
Christianity teaches that it was done for you, by someone far greater, in your place. It teaches us that all we bring to our salvation is sin, all we offer is our lives of rebellion and pleas for mercy. Because we are incapable of saving ourselves. We can't reach that bar, its too high. When the standard is perfection, any deviation whatsoever means you fail, and since you can't do better or more than perfect, there's no extra credit to make up for the difference.
Because the sin is within us, we are inherently unable to do what we must to be saved, and can only rely on another in our place, a representative to do what we cannot, for us. And that someone was the baby Jesus, born in a manger with legions of angels exploding into a cold night to celebrate before astounded shepherds.
We all want to fix things our way, we all want to have some credit and do our part. We all have so much pride and certainty we're right that we figure we can make it all better if only given a chance. So much unbelievable evil has been done in the world in that very name, from the inquisition to communism and beyond. We wrap up our horrific deeds in a pretty package of well meaning and pleasant slogans, but the bones jut out and the blood leaks out onto the floor. You can put a bow on the whole thing, but you can't keep the flies away.
Christianity is the truth, and the way - Jesus is the truth and the way, the only way. Our only hope came to earth in the form of a tiny helpless baby who, despite the words of Away in a Manger, did cry. That hope gives us a chance of salvation, like a drowned man lying on a beach has only one hope: resuscitation by someone else.
And once saved, our lives should, and over time do more and more, reflect the amazement and gratitude for what has been done. Not because we're ordered to be gracious, but because we respond naturally to it, like a human responds naturally to resuscitation by breathing. Yes we fail, yes we stray, yes we are "prone to wander" away from the God we love, as the hymn puts it. But Christ lived the life we fail to and died for that sin, too. And washed clean by the blood of the lamb, we stand before God like a child weeping that we've failed our beloved father once more and forgiven once more to try again. O, to grace how great a debtor daily I'm constrained to be.
And each day we live in the hope that one day we'll rest from our sins, finally find peace from that struggle against what we know to be wrong, and celebrate in a time when tragedy ceases, joy abounds, and we finally see the glory we've long known was out there but could never find on this earth.
Celebrate Christmas in the light of tragedy? That is absolutely the best time to do it.