Monday, December 24, 2012

Rethinking Christmas During a Time of Darkness

Usually, the Christmas season cultivates an uplifting spirit among people in the United States. People travel across the country to be reunited with their families, Christmas music plays in the background in stores, decorative lights offer evidence of joy in neighborhoods, and plays, parties, or presentations abound that can put anyone in "the Christmas spirit." [E1] This year, however, there has been a different feeling in the United States. "The Christmas spirit" has been darkened by the outbreaks of violence that have unfolded in the past two weeks. In a small town Connecticut, mothers were wailing over the senseless slaughter of their children. As the media covered this event, all who followed it were affected by these tragic events. After all, how can you go on buying gifts and attending parties as if nothing happened when you are so painfully aware that other people are deeply suffering? As if that wasn't enough, a random shooting in Philadelphia yesterday and a murderous ambush against heroic firefighters today open up our wounds anew, preventing us from finding some solace on the night that Santa Clause comes. [E2] And this is to say nothing of the tragic events happening elsewhere in the world, like the mass shooting on a civilian population in Syria, which barely make a headline in our news sources because we are so wrapped up in our own pain.

How are we supposed to respond to all of this evil on Christmas? We are tempted to ignore it, at least for 24 hours, so that we can enjoy the holiday with our loved ones, but that would be such a betrayal to those who can't ignore it. We are tempted to offer some inspiring answer that would make those who are suffering feel a little better in the season, but this would most likely cut into their grieving process, and it is more likely about us than them. So what then? Should we to throw away our presents, change our holiday plans, and try to do some good in the world in response to these tragic events? But what good would any of this sacrificial action do anyway other than to appease our bourgeois consciences?

Our sober reaction to these events may actually prepare us for the "true spirit of Christmas" in a way that lights and music never could. Although we usually imagine Jesus' birth as a picturesque and calm event, this is not how the gospels describe it. Shortly after Jesus was conception, Joseph considered divorcing Mary because of the shame that pregnancy would bare on his family. Thus Jesus was born into an environment of social hostility. When Joseph and Mary travelled to Bethlehem, they could not find/afford a decent living situation in which Mary could give birth. Thus Jesus was born into an environment of economic hostility. After the Magi came with the news that Jesus was born, Herod ordered the slaughter of all babies under the age of two. Thus Jesus was born into an environment of physical violence and political hostility. The cry of the mothers in Newtown, Connecticut should be painfully reminiscent for Christians of the cry of the mothers in Bethlehem mentioned in Matthew 2:18. The Christmas story is not a feel-good tale about how we all have childlike goodness inside of us if only we believe in ourselves. It is the story of light coming into darkness; it speaks of the kind of hope that is forged in a world of great suffering.

After the Sandy Brook shooting, the media was filled with political cries to fix our broken society. Some people have called for a ban on weapons, some have called for greater security at schools, some have called for improved care for the mentally ill. This cry for justice, for a better society, for a new set of rules, is actually very appropriate, although the specific policies that people ask for are often misguided. [E3] When the Old Testament looked for a Messiah, this is what it meant. It was not asking for a solution to guilty consciences or fear of death, but to the problem of an unjust culture, an insufficient politic, an evil world. Thus, Isaiah begins his famous "Christmas" chapter by saying, "The people  walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned." [E4] He goes on to predict: "the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever."

Thus, Jesus came as a political Messiah, to combat the social, economic, political, and physical hostility of the world. But he didn't do it through the standard political channels - not through an empire or a democratic election - no, his political solution was much more innovative than that. Instead, he founded a nonviolent, forgiving, serving community that worshipped God with all its heart, soul, mind, and strength. And in this community, he offered a real alternative to the never-ending cycle of violence and the impotent political promises to stop it: The love of this community would eventually reign supreme in the world, and salvation would come by joining it.

So I encourage you not to trivialize this Christmas season by ignoring the events around us, but to remember that true peace only comes through the suffering Savior, the one who vulnerably placed himself among us to offer us a way to heaven even in a broken world.


[E1] Of course, even in the "good times," there are people who suffer tremendously due to personal tragedies in their lives. In fact, the holiday season often heightens their pain because it tells them that their grieving isn't appropriate or condemns them to experiencing it alone.

[E2] This is not an endorsement of Santa Clause.

[E3] I do support those who cry for a ban on weapons in our society, but at the same time, I think that relinquishing weapons must happen voluntarily. After all, there is something ironic about coercing people (with the ultimate threat of force) to give up their tools of force. But more on my political theology later.

[E4] Isaiah 9:2, 6-7