The Nightmare of the Nativity

30 12 2012

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{The following is a transcript of a talk I gave to an adult class at a local church on Dec. 23, 2012.}

I want to talk about joy today, but let’s be honest: there’s a solemnity to Christmas this year, given the events last weekend in Newtown, CT. Sandy Hook Elementary School has crashed its way into our collective psyches, and into hearts and minds, and there’s no easy way to forget it. And there shouldn’t be. But what are we supposed to do? Dwell on it to the point where it defines our Christmas season? Or, conversely, simply go on about our merry way talking about mistletoe and adorable Christmas pageants? What is the right response to this Christmas season, given the events of Newtown?

I actually think there is a right response, and it has everything to do with joy. But let me step back.

It is far too presumptuous to assign some rational explanation to Sandy Hook, as if we can make sense of evil. We don’t know all the answers, rational or religious. The better side of wisdom is often, maybe even usually, wrought from asking the right questions, not giving the right answers. Yes, we’re to seek answers, but more often than not, it’s simply wise to ask questions.

In Luke’s version of the Nativity story, Mary’s response is contrasted to Zechariah’s. Mary is simply content to ask, “How can this be?” Zechariah, on the other hand, wants answers and wants them now, and as a result is struck dumb. Oh, if only the many pundits of the last week commenting on the Sandy Hook tragedy could have themselves been struck dumb.

There is a darkness to Christmas that too often goes unacknowledged, and it stands, I believe, at the center of the wonder and beauty and joy of Christmas. Christmas is, liturgically speaking, the feast of the Incarnation, and the very word “Christ-mas(s)” reflects the understanding of Christmas as a feast day within the Church year connected to the Eucharist. While we hear a lot about the need to put “Christ” back in Christmas . . . we need to put the “mass” back in it, too.

But why is it significant that Christmas is attached to the Eucharist? What, in other words, does it mean to recapture the sacramental aspect — the “mass” part — of Christmas?

The various sacraments of Christianity, chief among them baptism and the Eucharist, suggest the idea that the mystical and spiritual truths of faith are expressed fundamentally in the hard realities of life; and I mean “hard” in both senses, as tangible in the water and bread and wine, and difficult as in the death that baptism symbolizes, and the body and blood of Christ’s sacrifice. After all, sacred and sacrifice share the same Latin root: sacrum, or sacer. Which is to say, the sacramental nature of the Christian faith makes this life matter more, not less. It means that the deepest truths in life are inherently difficult to bear, but it is a holy office to bear them.

Poems here come to my aid. One of my favorite is by Robert Hayden, entitled, appropriately enough, “Those Winter Sundays.” It is, presumably, about the poet’s father, who was a gruff and unsentimental man whose love Hayden was not able to appreciate until many years later as he is looking back:

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

“…love’s austere and lonely offices,” one of the great lines in all of poetry. There is an austerity to Christmas, in all of its talk of love and joy, that can help us, I think, respond to the events of Sandy Hook Elementary.

I think, too, of T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi”:

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This, set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Death? At Christmas? What was Eliot thinking? That seems so out of place. It’s about birth, isn’t it, and about new life?

Well, think back, for a moment, to the nativity story in its entirety. It actually isn’t a cute story at all, in spite of our being conditioned by a lifetime of adorable Christmas pageants to think of cute little shepherds wearing cotton beards and virginal 12 year-olds carrying plastic babies every time we hear the word “nativity.” But the actual story is much, much different – and much darker. Much more austere, if you will. In fact, I’m titling my talk this morning “The Nightmare of the Nativity.”

Here’s Matthew’s version:

Matt. 1:18 – 2:18

18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet[e] did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

Chapter 2

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magifrom the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
    who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
    weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.”

Sorry, I shouldn’t have read past v. 15. Totally puts a damper on the ol’ Christmas spirit, doesn’t it? But what kind of Christmas are we talking about here, what kind of Christmas are we perpetuating, if we don’t read the whole story? I would submit to you that the Slaughter of the Innocents, as it is traditionally referred to, is part and parcel of the Christmas story – of the sacramental nature of Christmas – and to leave it out is, once again, to buy completely into our gentrifying impulses to tidy up the harsh realities of heaven, and of God (as we’ve done with virtually every other holiday on the calendar: Christmas is reduced to Santa, Easter to an egg-bearing bunny, Halloween to jack-o-lanterns and candy, and now, alas, Thanksgiving to the sale at Macy’s).

Ralph Wood, a good man and a wonderful scholar, has, in his most recent book Chesterton: The Nightmare Goodness of God, a passage about Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and he writes that in Gethsemane Jesus was “pleading that his Kingdom might come by some other means…

than the cruciform suffering that his disciples will surely encounter because of their faithfulness to him and his gospel . . . . There is no other way to redemption than the Cross.

Such suffering does not belong wholly or even primarily to humanity, as in the wisdom afforded by both the Socratic and Stoic traditions. It belongs pre-eminently to God. The divine grief has twin sources. God works in the natural realm through secondary causes so that his chance- and probability-driven cosmos might be free rather than fixed, even though these natural processes sometimes produce unspeakable misery for men and animals alike. Yet God is not passive before the horror of such suffering. In both creating and redeeming the cosmos from beyond it, God experiences transcendent sadness over such human suffering, even while knowing that it will finally redound  to the glory and redemption of everything. Even more grievous to God are the devastating evils deriving from sinfully disordered human freedom. Alienation and unbelief reach their awful apogee in the Crucifixion. There the Son of God himself rains the grail of totally undeserved anguish. There is no other way for humankind to be reclaimed and restored than by life in his Kingdom of sorrowful joy.

“Sorrowful joy.” That term speaks directly to what I want to spend the balance of our time talking about. The rest of my address to you this morning is essentially an abridged version of the last lecture I give my students each semester in my Introduction to Christianity course, and it is, for me, the one that comes most out of my own questions as a believer: questions much like “How should we respond to the tragic events of Newtown, CT in the midst of the Christmas season?” After all, we cannot let events like Sandy Hook define our theologies, because events like this do not define the totality of life. But if our theologies don’t include the Sandy Hooks of the world, then our theologies aren’t worth holding to. And I’d add that if Christmas isn’t about more than cute Christmas pageants, then we’ve lost the central – and sacramental – meaning of Christmas.

Jesus tells his disciples, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11). Jesus is summing up the whole point and purpose of his ministry, and he says these words at the Last Supper, just after Judas has left the party following Jesus’ prediction of his black-mail, just after he’s predicted Peter’s denial, and just after he’s foretold his own death. Pretty strange time to be talking about joy, it would seem, unless, of course we’ve totally misunderstood joy. Right on the eve of his darkest moment, Jesus essentially sums up his ministry talking about it. So what can it possibly mean? Is there a sadness to joy, a darkness, even, that we as the Church have lost hold of? I think so.

{At this point in my talk, I gave my lecture on joy, which I will skip here for the sake of brevity — or what’s left of it — and go directly to my closing comments.}

And so joy, finally, is related to sadness and solemnity and humility, which brings us back to Ralph Woods’ “sorrowful joy,” which moves, as I’ve said, from there through gratitude, wonder, and mirth, which all culminate in joy, which comes to its perfect expression in the cross, where joy is manifest in both the deep humility and gratitude for the death of Christ and the wonder and mirth of his resurrection. The mystery of joy, in other words, is hidden in the mystery of Christ. It begins and ends with him.

And so with Christ’s birth comes, also, death. And in this we return to Christmas, and to Sandy Hook Elementary. Christmas is, indeed, a dark time of year, a time when the contrast of what is and what is supposed to be is at its peak. This is perhaps why so many terrible things seem to happen around the holidays. We get a taste for what is supposed to be, but we’re left with what is. And for some, this contrast is too great to bear. It was for Herod and for Adam Lanza, who resorted to evil of the most despicable kind. It is for the parents and loved ones of those children and their teachers who died at that school. When heaven and earth meet, someone once said, it’s always a collision, and for some, that collision is fatal.

But as followers of Christ, we are to hold forth the promise that in that collision – in and through the darkness – comes light, and the darkness cannot put it out. The sacramental heart of Christmas tells us this: there is a dark joy, a foreboding wonder, that stalks the Nativity – “…that slouches towards Bethlehem to be born,” as William Blake once put it. Life, not death, has the last word, even if it is only through death that Life finally comes.

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