Sandy Hook School: The Slaughter of the Innocents
Into this season of mangers, shepherds and angels comes the story of the slaughter of the innocents, the bloody horror of ancient time that now takes on a sickening relevance to our own—the Gospels’ darkest story that serves as an unwanted reality check in Matthew’s account of the Messiah’s birth and the gifts of the magi. A reminder of the ultimate purpose of the baby cradled in Luke’s barnyard manger and marveled at by awestruck shepherds who saw and heard heaven’s worship.
The sweet and gentle crèche of home and church looks different this year. It lies in the shadow of the story we do our best to ignore—the story that is never, ever part of the church Christmas pageant. The world into which the baby Jesus is born is world of horrors as well as joy. Where murder and gift-giving breathe the same air, where one can sometimes hear angels singing, but also see Herod’s soldiers seeking parents’ joy with drawn swords.
In the face of such mindless, murderous evil, what can be said? What explanation can there be? And if there is an explanation, does it really matter? Reason stands helpless and hapless in the face of horrors like this; it breaks apart like an old man’s tooth breaking on a bone. It offers no emotionally insulating explanation when it faces with the thought—or reality—of a school full of the bodies of little ones. We are left with emotions raw as an exposed nerve on an icy Connecticut winter day.
And, what can we do? How can we help? How does one fix a heart that isn’t just broken but shattered? What does one say that makes the pain go away? All words in the face of such loss are empty. Better, like Job’s comforters, to sit silently in Job’s presence, and resist the urge to offer explanations for what can’t be explained. Better to resist the urge to theologize and speculate about God’s purposes in mass murder.
And yet. . . and yet, we don’t have the luxury of ignoring God or blaming God, because the God we meet in Jesus is the God who lost a good son, a beloved son. A God who hears His Son cry out “Why have You forsaken me?” while slowing dying on a cross. We can’t ignore God because if we stay with the Christmas story, if we follow it to its end, we arrive at murder by crucifixion, and we discover that in Christ God’s heart was nailed to a cross. Such a God we can’t ignore.
The Gospel of Matthew begins by identifying the baby about to be born as “Immanuel, God with us.” If this “God with us” was only the God of stars and wise men, of shepherds and angels and friendly barnyard animals, then this isn’t a God who makes any difference when burying a child. But the nativity stories don’t exhaust the meaning of “Immanuel.” As Jesus’ story unfolds, so does the meaning of “God with us”:
Jesus is betrayed by Judas. Immanuel. Peter denies him. Immanuel. The rest of the disciples flee. Immanuel. Jesus is arrested. Immanuel. Jesus is scourged and beaten. Immanuel. Jesus is condemned to death. Immanuel. Jesus is nailed to a cross. Immanuel. Jesus suffers. Immanuel. Jesus dies. Immanuel.
The one who is Isaiah’s “Suffering Servant,” the man of sorrows and acquainted with suffering, is Immanuel, God with us.
And, if we press on with the story of Jesus to its real end, we find that Easter is the fullest and greatest example of God with us. Jesus died, and God was there. Jesus cried out to his Father, “Why have you forsaken me?”, and three days later God answers his prayer. God doesn’t forsake him. The ultimate Immanuel: The empty tomb.
Maybe this year we should get past the “sexist” aspect of “God Rest Ye, Merry, Gentlemen” and sing it in a deeper, more somber way:
God rest ye merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day To save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray. O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy O tidings of comfort and joy
The slaughter of the innocents is also a time, a profoundly hard time, to experience not the joy the carol describes, but certainly the comfort. We need to hear these words in light of one of our Lord’s beatitudes: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Amid the slaughter of the innocents, this comfort of God is no small thing. The One who comforts is One who knows the loss of a child.
In times such as this, comfort is all that matters. What we say doesn’t matter. What we think doesn’t matter. What matters is God’s comfort. Somehow, that’s enough. Finally, that’s all there is. “My grace is sufficient,” God tells Paul. We emotionally fall into the bottom of a dark, deep pit from which we can see no hope of escape, and yet there, miraculously, we meet the God who comforts. With more hope than the Psalmist, Christ makes us bold to say, “If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.”
Tidings of comfort indeed. And, in time, perhaps joy.
Randy Thompson, Forest Haven Bradford, New Hampshire
Post Tagged with comfort, mourning and God, Sandy Hook School, slaughter of the innocents