Fear not Good News, great joy to all people!
Fear not Good News, a Savior, Christ is born!
Fear not Good News, He'll conquer every evil!
Fear not Good News, a Savior, Christ has come!
So sang our choir on December 9th of this year at our congregation's Christmas cantata. The words were based upon the angel's proclamation to the shepherds who were watching their flocks on the night of Jesus' birth. I can only imagine the hope that filled the hearts of the shepherds when they heard this news.
All Jews were awaiting the coming of the promised Messiah who would do exactly what the angels proclaimed: bring peace, bring justice, end evil, and restore creation to the way God intended it when He first created it. The miraculous proclamation on that hillside seemed to indicate that time was now upon the earth. A child was born who would issue such a blessed world in.
Each year, millions upon millions of Christians gather to celebrate this event in candlelight services on Christmas Eve and in worship on Christmas Day. They hear the reports of Good News of great joy, and most return to their homes filled with warm-fuzzies.
It's unfortunate that many Christians then skip the next Sunday at church, at least here in the U.S. For every so often a rather dark text follows these services of light and hope and peace--the text regarding the Holy Innocents. It seems that after Jesus was born, news of his birth reached King Herod who had a bit of a jealous streak in him. Herod wanted to be king, and he didn't want anyone usurping his power. When he found out another possible king was born, he ordered his soldiers to go to Bethlehem and murder all infants ages 2 and younger. The soldiers carried out his orders. Scriptures report, "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more." (Matthew 2:18)
It is a stark contrast to the hope and expectation of Christmas day. From the high of peace on earth and goodwill toward men and the expectation of the destruction of evil to the low of innocent children's blood shed by a mentally imbalanced king.
I believe the story of the Holy Innocents is included in Scripture for a purpose: a purpose that might sound harsh to some, but a purpose none-the-less. I believe Matthew is trying to communicate to you and me that Jesus' birth was not going to change the way the world worked. There would be no theology of glory in this story.
(When I say "theology of glory" I refer to the train of thought in some branches of Christianity that says when a person becomes a Christian, no longer do bad things occur to a person. The convert will find themselves healthy, wealthy, and wise because of their faith. I do not believe the Scriptures support such a notion, and certainly the teachings of Jesus do not.)
In the past 24 hours, I have seen more than a few comments on Facebook and in news stories wondering how it is possible for someone to kill innocent babies/children. Orthodox Christianity provides an answer, and it is all too unflattering:
The human creature has a streak of evil running through it.
Please note, I did not say the human creature was evil. That is far too simplistic. But neither do I say the human creature is good. The human creature has within it the capability of committing tremendously good things, but it also has the capacity for committing horrendous atrocities--even the capacity of killing innocent children.
It is this fundamental premise of human nature that orthodox Christianity begins with. We do not suggest that a person is born good and somehow learns evil. We do not begin with the premise that a person is born totally evil and somehow learns good. We believe each and every person is a mixture of both: saint and sinner, and these two natures are constantly at war with one another.
It is unfortunate in my estimation that shortly after the shootings (and I am sure in the coming weeks) all sorts of reactions will be forthcoming. There will be focus on guns. There will be focus on mental illness. There will be focus on divorce and the family environment in which the shooter was raised. Yet, I wonder just how much focus will be given to the real problem--the problem of human nature and the almost blatant unwillingness of we ourselves to look in the mirror and confront the problem of our own sinful nature.
Perhaps we don't really want to go there as a society and as a people. After all, that would mean we'd have to acknowledge that we are the problem, and it would also mean that we'd have to acknowledge that we cannot fix said problem.
That's the hell of it for some. Some would like to believe that we can fix ourselves:
If we only spent enough time educating ourselves and our children...
If we only spent enough time in therapy...
If we only could find the right medication and the perfect dose...
If we only took away anything that could be used as a weapon...
If we only took the time to watch how people act and look for the warning signs...
We are so arrogant to think that we can fix a problem that the ancients have wrestled with since our beginnings! They couldn't fix it, and they had much more time to think about it than we do!
(Please spare me the misguided notion that we are somehow more intelligent than those who have gone before us. Perhaps we have advanced technologically further, but it could well be argued that with the advanced in technological prowess, our emotional maturity has actually regressed!)
For thousands of years, humans have tried to find a way to live in peace and harmony, and we have been unsuccessful. For thousands of years we have tried to fix the problems that ail us, and we have failed. It is plain to me that we need a fix from outside of ourselves, and I believe it is God who has offered such a fix through and in the person of Jesus.
And it is not Jesus' birth that provides that fix. Rather, it is the end of his life and the new beginning experienced right after it. For, you see, in my estimation, and in the estimation of many theologians and writers who have gone before, it is in Jesus' death and resurrection that we get a glimmer of hope as we gaze at the tragedies of this world--tragedies that we can neither prevent or fix.
First off, Jesus died a horrible, unjust death. Jesus didn't die naturally of old age. He didn't die of cancer or disease. He died at the hands of an unjust system that falsely accused him, made him suffer horrendously in front of his family members and friends, and then killed him in a humiliating fashion. Jesus suffered as we suffer. He died as we die. This might not be such a significant deal except for the fact that orthodox Christians proclaim Jesus as God the Son. In no other religion does God suffer and die for people--only in Christianity does God propose to do something so preposterous. God is not above our suffering. God is not above our pain. God is not above our grief. All of these things, God knows on an intimate level, and so God understands the grief of those who lose children in senseless ways--like school shootings.
But there is more than simply God understanding. Jesus' death was not the end. There is a whole other aspect to this Christian faith: the resurrection. If Jesus' death were the end, we would be left with a God who suffers with, but a very unsatisfactory conclusion. What about justice? What about the problem of evil? What about peace on earth and goodwill toward all?
Jesus' resurrection offers us a vision of the end. Jesus resurrection offers us a sense of what God will one day accomplish: death will not be the end; injustice will not be the end; grief will not be the end; pain and suffering will not be the end. New life will be the end. God's reign will be the end. Restoration will be the end as evil is defeated. This is the promise of Christ's raising from the dead, and it is the hope to which we hold onto.
The grief in Sandy Hook is palpable. Many feel it and grieve with those who lost their children. As someone who has performed more funerals for children than I would have cared to (one is too many), I offer the same words to them as I do to grieving parents:
Grieve. Don't hold back. Shed your tears for they are necessary, but know that God is also grieving with you. God is shedding His own tears because He knows the pain you are experiencing. God has lost a child as well, but God has also raised that child from the dead. God would not let death have the final say for His child, and He will not let death have the final say for yours. Grieve this day. Let your sobs reach down to your core. Grieve, but do not despair. Despair is for those who have no hope, but we who have faith, have hope. Hope that one day you will be reunited with your child, hope that one day God will fix the brokenness of humankind and of this world; hope that one day all things will be made new. This is the hope we cling to will all of our strength. Never let it go.
It is such hope that allows us to live the proclamation of the angels:
Fear not, Good News, great joy for all people!
Fear not, Good News, a Savior, Christ is born!
Fear not, Good News, he'll conquer every evil!
Fear not, Good News, a Savior, Christ has come!