Unsentimental Christmas

I was in New York City when it happened, some thirty-five miles from an event so horrific we can hardly imagine it, much less describe it. "Words strain, crack, and sometimes break, under the burden, under the tension, slip, slide, perish, decay with imprecision," wrote T. S. Eliot. Horror, tragedy, murder-all slip-sliding words for what happened in Newtown, Connecticut. Such words do not work because we also use them in other less serious senses. We speak of horror films, tragic dramas, and murder on the Orient Express. Something deeper, darker is going on here.

Who, what, when, where, were quickly answered. But the why question lingers, festers. Not only why Adam Lanza, a young man barely out of his teens, could have done what he did-was it the broken family, violent video games, too easy access to weapons of war? But also the deeper "why?" Why we live in a world where things like this happen, why God didn't step in and stop the bullets, and why human beings continue to ask why, and why Jesus asked why in the darkest moment of his life on the cross: "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" (Matt. 27:46).

On Sunday I went to Central Presbyterian Church where my Beeson colleague, Doug Webster, led the service. He asked the children of the congregation to come forward for a special time of prayer with him. He asked whether they had noticed any extra hugs and kisses from their parents of late. He told them that because it was the Christmas season, and because of what was happening in the world, they could expect to be held extra tight over the next few days. He told them how precious they were, how very much they mattered to their moms and dads and to God. He was talking to the kids, but he was speaking to all of us who long to be embraced in Jesus's arms, those strong and everlasting arms.

Doug's sermon was on one of the most unusual Christmas texts in the Bible, from the Apocalypse the apostle John received on the island of Patmos (Rev. 12:1-6). In his earlier Gospel, John has no account of Jesus's birth. There he begins with the eternal Word in the "bosom of the Father." He tells us that the Word became flesh, but he does not say when, or how, or by whom (John 1:14-18). Mary makes only two appearances in the fourth Gospel, one at the wedding feast in Cana, the other beneath the cross at the end. But Mary comes back in the apocalyptic vision of the star-crowned woman, surrounded by the sun and the moon. This same woman cries out in pain "ready to be delivered" in the dolors of childbirth.

But there is a second part to John's vision in Revelation 12: a great red dragon on the prowl for his prey, ready to pounce, to kill. In John 10, the dragon becomes the wolf who scatters the sheep, whose mission is to kill, steal, and destroy. In 1 Peter 5:8, he is the ravenous lion on a hunt for something, for someone he can devour. We like our Christmas stories told with other animals, friendlier animals like sheep, oxen, and donkeys. We want the manger without the mess, Bethlehem without Calvary, gentle Mary meek and mild-not an unwed teenage mom, a peasant girl writhing in pain as the red dragon lurks. But in Jesus Christ God gives us an unsentimental Christmas. As Doug Webster put it, "The Gift we celebrate at Christmas was not wrapped, it was crucified. It was not under the tree, it was nailed to the tree, and it was not opened on Christmas Day, it was opened on Easter morning."

When Jesus stood at the grave of his friend Lazarus, he wept (John 11:35). Those were not only tears of grief, but also of anger-he snorted like a warhorse ready for battle, the Greek text says. Confronted by the thick evil of human suffering, violence, and death, Jesus Christ identifies with our loss, our brokenness, our bewilderment-which means that he is not divorced from us, he is with us; which means there is no bed in hell we can make so wretched but that the Son of God has not already slept in it. This is what we read about Jesus in the book of Hebrews: "We don't have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He's been through weakness and testing, experienced it all-all but the sin. So let's walk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help" (4:15, The Message).

After it was all over, the people of Newtown came together in houses of worship to embrace, to listen, to pray, and to wait. For, as Eliot also wrote, "The faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting. So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing."