Why Christmas is for Tragedy

This past Friday was heart-crushing for anyone who heard about the Newtown, Connecticut elementary school shooting that took the lives of 20 six and seven-year-olds and six adults. Less well-publicized was the stabbing of 22 children ages six to twelve and one 85-year-old woman outside a primary school in China the very same day. The news was almost too much to bear and puts a cloud of darkness over this often joyous time of year. One shop owner in Newtown commented to a reporter, “Christmas is canceled this year.” However, as today we light three candles for Advent: hope, peace, and joy, if there is anytime we need this church season in our lives, it is now.

Christmas is not merely about the birth of Jesus Christ. That is only half the story. Christmas not only celebrates Christ’s first coming, but his second coming as well. To forget that is to forget that he is doing an ongoing work in our world. When Christ returns to us, he will return fully triumphant and as a king establishing a new order in the world:

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death, or mourning, or cries of distress, no more sorrow; those old things have passed away. And he who sat on the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. (Rev. 21:4-5, Knox)

Christ’s own birth brought about violence. Herod had all of the babies in Bethlehem killed in his attempt to eradicate the young messiah. There is truly nothing new under the sun. When we forget that the child born in a lowly manger is our triumphant king who undoes this present darkness, we can easily be overwhelmed by the depth of the darkness. The artist Vincent van Gogh wrote, “There is much evil in the world and in ourselves, terrible things, and one does not need to be far advanced in life to be in fear of much and to feel the need of a firm faith in life hereafter and to know that without faith in God one cannot live, one cannot bear it. But with that faith one can go on for a long time.”

The American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow knew very well the darkness of the world. He penned a poem in December 1861 following the death of his wife and the departure of his son to fight in the War Between the States. Lamenting the terrible condition of the world while the Christmas chimes rang merrily on, he expressed reassurance by their ultimate message:

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

The message of Christmas is ultimately eschatological. It looks forward. It offers a promise. There will be peace on earth, and the one who is bringing it has secured it with his very own blood.

(Cover image: detail of The Massacre of the Innocents, Francois-Joseph Navez)