by Peter Gathje
To reflect on the slaughter of students and teachers at Sandy Hook and the murder of Officer Lang here in Memphis is to enter into lamentation, a deep questioning of the evil present in human life and of God’s apparent absence and inaction. Where is God when children and teachers are brutally murdered by a disturbed gunman? Where is God when a mother of four has her life snuffed out by a street thug? And the question intensifies given that we are in the season of Christmas, presented over and over again as a time of joy, hope, and light.
Yet, a careful reading of the stories of Jesus’ birth as told in both Matthew and Luke in the New Testament reveal that Christmas is never a time of unmitigated joy. Christmas hope is always hard. From the very start controversy and conflict are present in the stories of Jesus’ birth. Both Matthew and Luke point to the scandal of Mary’s being pregnant and the threat to the reputation of both Mary and Joseph. Matthew relates the story of Herod’s threatening of the life of Jesus and the need for the holy family to flee to another country, followed by Herod’s ordering of the slaughter of all males two years and younger. Luke tells of there being “no room at the inn” for the couple of the road because of the demands of an imperial census. The birth of Jesus, a sign of hope and light, occurs in a world marked by evil, and structured by oppression and violence.
Joy and hope at Jesus’ birth is not a facile optimism about things getting better and better because humans are so good. Joy at Jesus’ birth is rooted the hard reality that evil threatens with the power of death, yet that evil never has the last word. God enters into suffering caused by human evil and expressed in violent powers, both individual and institutional. God entering into that suffering shows us a way out. Our way out, given by God is to join with each other in compassion, to trust that love is stronger than hate, and to reject fear that divides and by embracing faith in God and each other that draws us together. To enter into this way is to enter in the hard hope of Christmas.
This hope is hard but it affirms that God was present in the teachers who gave their lives for their students. This hope affirms that God was present in the first responders who were willing to risk their lives for the good of others. This hope affirms that God remains in Sandy Hook as that community refuses to be defined by the evil done but instead defines themselves as loving in the midst of grief. This hope also affirms that God remains in Memphis whenever we refuse to be defined by violence and poverty and racism, but instead commit ourselves to peacemaking, shared prosperity, and the Beloved Community.
Christmas is always more than the sentimentalized “baby Jesus.” Christmas is holding to God’s Light in the midst of a world that seeks to define us by evil and division and fear. Christmas allows the question of where is God present to be answered by Mary and Joseph who in hope stayed together despite their fears and who welcomed a child whose very life was threatened from the outset. As with Mary and Joseph, Christmas invites each of us to look into our hearts and ask, will we stake our lives on the hopeful power of love or will we shrink away in fear, imitating the evil that threatens us?