WHAT’S SO GREAT ABOUT CHRISTMAS?
As I sat on a stationary bicycle at a local athletic facility Friday morning completing my exercise regimen, the story of what was transpiring in Newtown, Connecticut was breaking on national television. The initial report was of a shooter who had killed at least two people and had wounded others in Sandy Hook Elementary School. The report would eventually build to a horrific crescendo, as the announcement was subsequently made that twenty children, some of whom are pictured here, and eight adults including the shooter himself, had been killed. A pall of sadness fell over me like a cold black curtain.
Since those shocking moments on Friday, I have pondered anew the meaning of Christmas. The events which transpired in Bethlehem of Judea over two centuries ago were also far from placid. A slaughter of innocents occurred there and then as well. Herod the Great, hearing of the birth of a new king and fearing the loss of his own temporal power, ordered that all male infants two years of age and younger be killed, and so it was, unspeakably dreadful. Jeremiah had prophecied, “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more.” Broken-hearted parents could not be solaced in ancient Bethlehem when confronted by the face of pathology and evil, and they cannot be comforted now in Newtown, Connecticut. These are realities against which all words recoil.
So where, I ask, is the hope of Christmas in 2012? The answer, I suspect, is that it is in the same place it was centuries ago in Bethlehem, "on Mary’s lap sleeping." The Christ child continues to radiate ineffable hope and joy in the face of the heaviest despair and sorrow. For the believer, Jesus’s birth symbolizes a gentle, but unconquerable divine love that never leaves humanity alone, refusing to let us go. “O love that wilt not let me go, I rest my weary soul in Thee . . . .” Is there a more apt carol for this season than that hymn? Often for even the doubter, I have observed that Jesus’s birth symbolizes a strange and indefinable sense of joy and triumph of good over evil. There’s something mysterious and remarkable about the birth of a child that revivifies the weary spirit.
Just as the miracle of Christmas occurred in the midst of chaos, strife, and even – God help us -- the massacre of small children, the light of the Christ child continues to illumine countless hearts today, which languish under the same miserable burdens. I continue to remind myself that the word “bedlam” is derived from the name “Bethlehem.” Christmas comes in the midst of bedlam, in a twisted world, where the wellsprings of pain and suffering run wide and deep. Yet the Christmas message is that evil is not the final word, that it does not and will not overcome the world. Love does that: it remains the great eternal verity, redemptive in its towering influence over people's lives.
I confess that, if it were not for this metaphysical faith (and that's what it is, a "faith"), this world would provide me little reason to go on. As faith wanes so does hope, and as hope diminishes, the ultimate meaning of life translates to little more than a cruel joke. Faith is life-giving, and what more marvelous symbol of it than the crèche.
My soul has been crushed this year, most recently by the horror of events in Connecticut, as if beneath the hooves of a thousand stampeding horses. I suspect that you, my readers, have had your travails too. So let this Christmas be a hallmark of hope and new life for us all, as we have been reminded by one of the most pugnacious of all secularists, Sigmund Freud, in words that even he dared not translate: inter urinas et faeces nascimur.
God bless little children everywhere, and merry Christmas to you all!
December 17, 2012