As a New Year begins, I wished to pause and contemplate just what “newness” as a writer of faith means? And what other more poignant symbol to begin an exploration of newness than children?
For all the wonderful topics that lay ahead, all the gifts our God has ready for us in the spreading out of this new year, however, I feel I must clear my throat first.
For the past few weeks, my site has remained quiet. Partly from the busyness of the season, as for all of us, but partly, too, from a grief clotting my voice, silencing me as a writer, seizing me as a mother, giving me pause as a believer … for what words are there?
If you are like me, your thoughts haven’t wandered far from the tragedy that occurred the week before Christmas when a troubled young man in an unspeakably sickening act took 28 lives in a mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut – 20 of those, children. They are all laid to rest now – but for those who remain, what is the rest?
While our own children chased each other in frenzied joy, my sister and I sat together still and quiet in those days leading up to Christmas, mired in grief shared with strangers. We are both teachers. We are both mothers of children approximately the same age as those killed. We are both unable to imagine such unspeakable tragedy. We were both unable to do anything but sit together, still.
If you are like us, your thoughts keep returning to the idea of those children going off to school one December morning, never to return. To their parents craning their necks for a sight of them, rounding a corner, safely home. To their families yearning to hear their happy steps racing toward gifts under the tree on Christmas morning. To their faces, bright with promise and hope.
There are no words to express our communal shock and horror, nor the deep well of our sadness. There are only prayers, and those, too, in our mourning come often as no more than moans for which the Holy Spirit must intercede.
With all of this happening just before Christmas, how were we particularly to respond? In the ugly face of such tragedy, and the dark void of sin into which such an event throws into sharp relief, can there be Christmas? For anyone who has lost a loved one during this season, surely the entire thing can seem a tasteless, untimely joke.
I cannot help but think of the slaughter of the innocents from the time of that very first Christmas. Of all of those male children under 2 yrs of age, whom King Herod ordered killed to protect his throne from the prophecy of its overthrow by a king far greater than he. Such incredible cruelty done merely because of the fractured frailty of our humanity – the madness that the vanity of self-preoccupation brings. The human condition to various degrees and with varying consequences, but from which we all suffer and are trapped by.
Anne Rice in her novels on the life of Jesus portrays very poignantly, I think, a detail surrounding Jesus’ birth which we tend to overlook, a story we prefer to forget. She shows how Jesus emerged from the tragedy incurred by Herod’s rule, and how He battled being wracked by survivor’s guilt as a result of the slaughter of these children. In the now cultural glitz and glow of Christmas, we do not like to be reminded that the picturesque baby in the manger narrowly escaped a Roman’s spear, and that most of his peers did not.
While some may be tempted to blame Jesus’ birth for the massacre, His arrival as an infant that precipitated the final tipping point of a madman only highlights how the personal becomes the political. It is all the more important that His insertion into history came at such a time, with the horror of sin so amplified as to become an unmistakable backdrop to the drama unfolding. The fallen world as explained by the Judeo-Christian tradition is the only explanation that makes sense; the hope promised by the Christian faith of a restored world through God-made-man among us – the only hope that, as my pastor put so poignantly recently, does not have an expiration date. Exile and return, lostness and homecoming: the great themes of the monomyth, the leitmotif of humanity – these form the pattern that runs in our veins and stories and dreams. And the only way between them is through experience: the path of suffering and appreciation; the bridge of blood and birth of spirit.
We can replace King Herod with anyone preoccupied with his own vanity. Or put another way, with any of us, in various extremes or forms. Each and every one of us has slaughtered, and continues to slaughter, the innocent – in ourselves and others.
Children murdered falls among the myriad of madnesses, all of which are subsumed under the one greatest madness – sin. As a result of the folly of our separation from God, we moan within and without. We rock back and forth beside the lifeless bodies as Eve surely did over Abel. And the blood that speaks from the ground is all of ours, the spilling the testimony against us.
But in spite of us, in spite of the web of sin, no matter how many lay victim to evil, no matter how dark and bleak the night … Christmas still comes. Some speck of hope remains. For every one who calls on the Lord, in anguish or joy or fear or emptiness. Every one. The babe is born and the story rolls forward, fulfilled and fulfilling, toward a place where every tear shall be wiped away. Every one.
A mad king’s schemes can no more deter the advent of God among us than a star can be plucked from the sky.
And so, amidst the slaughter of innocence, a child is born … a child that we must keep alive in our hearts, whose promise of reconciliation and restoration is a lifeline cast through the ages and culminating in a time when innocence will know itself, and so, become righteous and joyful and true.
Isaiah 11:1-9 speaks of God’s justice and peace as brought to the whole world. Let the little children come unto me, claims our Savior, teaching us that we must, indeed, be like children to enter the kingdom of God. Aptly, then, into the final sweetness of the soul, the child crowns the way:
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.