What Newtown and Bethlehem Have in Common

"Twenty children killed." It is a similar refrain to the early life of Jesus. King Herod ordered children under two killed in the Judean village of Bethlehem when he heard from the Persian travelers that a "king of the Jews" was to be born. Historians estimate that in this tiny village some twenty were hacked to death by the mad man, subservient to Rome and insecure in his kingship.

The death of children, innocent and vulnerable, is cast in the very beginnings of the Gospel and Christmas story.

Here the unfolding of a Christian response begins: even as hundreds quickly gathered in Newtown churches for reflection, holding hands, hanging on to hope, soaking up consolation in grief over the tragic loss of a child or adult no longer alive to be loved, hugged and nurtured.

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What is there to be said? Especially now during this season we read Isaiah's prophecy of the coming king who "will stand and shepherd his flock."

The Christian story and promise is not a shield protecting us from violence, suffering or pain. As it "rains on the just and unjust," axiomatically it also hails on the just and unjust. Current Christian heresies that promote a pain-free life "if one will only follow Jesus" is biblically and patently false.

The hopeful and yet the misleading phrase we hear at every disaster (from a government misadventure to a horrendous social mishap) is that we need to ensure "that this never happens again." It is admirable in its intent, but disingenuous in its affect.

It promises what it can't deliver.

Yes it will happen again as violence is a publicly accepted commercial ingredient ensuring movies or war games sells. This heartbreaking tragedy is not just a story writ in the American culture awash as it is in guns of all sorts; recall the recent mass killings in Scotland and Norway, two countries where guns are heavily restricted and shooting is not a way of life.

Human tragedy visits us in the most unexpected ways. Parents in Newtown understandably ask "Why our child? Why our family? Why our town?" Even as parents in Aleppo or Damascus also ask.

Yes lawmakers will form new commissions, lament the endemic violent culture and lobby for changes.

And that is good. It is as it should be. Reshaping laws and cultural norms is what we try to do, especially when such horrifying realities stare us in the face.

Even so, violence, sorrow and misadventure come to most at some time in life. Pain is a constant in the human journey.

While the excruciating ache of parents and family in the Connecticut town is beyond words, most come to a breathless, gut-wrenching moment somewhere along the way.

What does the Christmas story have to say to us then?

Its very beginning was shaped by the massacre of little children. While the uniqueness of the Christian message is that the God of creation became human, it was within the world of deep human tragedy that he was raised.

Jesus is no mythological icon, floating in a mirage of wishful thinking and banal story. His world was of real flesh and blood. His understanding of the inner brokenness of Newtown is visceral. The kingdom his kingship brought is gritty and real.

Jesus is present in moments of grief, when tidal waves catch us by surprise and the ground beneath us rolls. In such times, not surprisingly, we are more open to spiritual insights and comfort. The inclination to gather around an altar, sing songs of solace and hear words of his peace signals that our spirit longs for a link with Transcendence. It is here that the tearing of the human soul is mediated by the salve of his presence.

Those broken hearts will mend though always scarred. Indeed, the longer we live, the more our composite emotional beings are covered with scars from wounds: some self-inflicted, others through no fault of our own.

The Christmas story is inevitably joined to its longer narrative: this is not the end of life. Beyond a simple affirmation that life goes on, the essential promise of the kingdom inaugurated is that as life begins, eternity is etched into its essence.

Life is not all there is to living - and death is not all there is to dying.

To hurting hearts everywhere, Christmas is a present and healing story in the midst of sorrow. And it is a hopeful promise of eternity.

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