No, the Christmas spirit has been kept at bay by the cold specter of tragedy as the television screen paints a picture of hell on earth and ill will toward all. Americans taste and see all is not right with the world as each image from the Newtown massacre flits before our eyes: lives taken by the hands of a deranged killer, the most innocent among us (young children) as well as some of the noblest (teachers). It is maddening, and sickening, and unbelievable yet tragically true. Newtown is only the epicenter of these tremors, however, as unfathomable loss and unshakable terror ripple across the country. Bomb threats, multiple school and mall shootings, it seems as if the world is ending, and not in a cute Mayan sort of way. It feels like we are losing the battle for the soul of our world as it grows scarier to walk out the front door each morning.
Indeed, national peril and loss might be enough to convince us the whole human endeavor is a sinking ship, yet when we add heartbreak on a local scale to this ever-simmering angst it all becomes just this side of unbearable. My own community, for instance, is still reeling from the sudden and crushing loss of a beloved teacher, one Mrs. Vicki Borrevik. Her own tenure long-since past, she stuck around the high school for years out of some perplexing love for us, its students, her students. Mrs. Borrevik's dynamic spirit and contagious laugh will be missed by those of us blessed enough to know her during her robust few years on earth.
Where, then, is Christmas? When death, the only certainty, seems to be so palpable as to cancel out all the joys of the season, how can we eat, drink and make merry in traditional Christmas fashion? I don't have a good answer I'm afraid but I am reminded of the deceivingly profound lament "Where Are You Christmas" from the yuletide hit How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
Where Are You Christmas - Faith Hill (How the Grinch Stole Christmas)
In this touching rendition Faith Hill belts the heart-cries of the film's moral mouthpiece, Cindy Lou Who. Cindy has grown jaded with age and feels disconnected with the inherent innocence of the Christmas season, particularly when she sees her friends and family buzz about in a materialistic blitz preparing for the holiday's arrival. She, like fellow-philosopher Charlie Brown before her, endeavors to rediscover Christmas yet can't seem to find it through the layers of wrapping paper, and in putting words to her plight describes quite poignantly the loss of innocence associated with growing up as well as the search for meaning in a world that does not seem wont to give it up. I can't think of a song more apropos as we attempt to celebrate Christmas in spite of the all-too-literal loss of innocents we experienced on December 14th, 2012. Where is Christmas when the very idea seems either to be a consumer's fever dream or a naive whisper drowned out by the gunman's fire?
Profound a question as it may be, "where are you Christmas?" is not the one on the lips of those most troubled among us. No, many skip the appetizer and dive straight into the main course, begging the question "Where are You God?" Where is God during tragedy of this magnitude? Where was God when the gunman mercilessly mowed down those children? Depending on who you ask, the answer might be that God has abandoned us because we habitually push Him away with our national policy and practice. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee famously claimed that, since we have "systemically removed God" from schools, it is no great surprise God was not present for this tragedy. While I respect Mr. Huckabee and understand his point to an extent, I'm afraid I can't reconcile these claims with the God portrayed in Scripture, one who pursues us persistently and ferociously. God is not in the business of abandoning His rebellious children, and to claim He would punish these most innocent ones for a handful of political policies, I simply will not, cannot accept it while holding on to belief in a loving God.
"The senseless killing of 20 children and their teachers and principal at Sandy Hook Elementary School was not part of God's grand plan. It was a thwarting of God's plan. It was the misuse of human freedom. Why then did God not stop it? For the same reason he does not stop you from texting and driving, or living selfish and self-absorbed lives; the same reason he allows us to ignore the poor, or to cheat on our spouses or to abuse power: because the freedom to make choices is an essential part of what it means to be human." - Adam Hamilton.
As my dear friend Sam reminded me a few days ago, our foul choices do not cancel out God's goodness. A God who allows us to choose life apart from Him must also allow us to make our own decisions, wayward as they may be. And if this is true, God does not suddenly flee when we give into the inhumanity of sin; He is just hidden for the moment. That said, while it may not be impossible to believe in God's goodness in the midst of such injustice, it certainly feels like a remote dream that we might experience it. "Where are you God?" might not be an expression of doubt so much as a sincere request. Where can we find You, oh hidden God, when You seem a world away?
Interestingly and beautifully, the answer to the first of these two questions might actually provide the key to the second. We can seek God aided by the beauty and hope of Christmastime.
We in the Protestant tradition don't do much with the church calendar, but for thousands of years Catholics have, in anticipation of Christmas day, celebrated Advent season. This is a time of expectant waiting, in which we experience solidarity with our historical brethren, the Israelites who waited on the Messiah to free them from Roman oppression.
Advent is a time of solemn reflection and persistent hope in the face of overwhelming obstacles and seemingly hopeless causes, and I can think of no themes more necessary for our current milieu than these. During Advent time we wait for God to show up, trusting He will because He has before and has promised to again.
Advent is the conscious choice to hope in spite of all evidence to the contrary. It is counter-intuitive, counter-cultural and counter-logical, but it is in such paradox that its beauty resides. It is so easy to let go of hope and faith. It is a simple response to life's biggest mysteries. But I for one have just about had my fill of simple answers.
"Advent is not for the naïve. Because in spite of the dark and cold, we see light—you look up, or you make light, with candles, trees. And you give light. Beauty helps, in art and nature and faces. Friends help. Solidarity helps. If you ask me, when people return phone calls, it’s about as good as it gets. And who knows beyond that." - Anne Lamott.
Advent means Christmas is coming even if it ought to have given up the ghost long ago (Christmas is stubborn that way). And let us not forget for a moment what Christmas means, how miraculous and precious it is. Christmas says that God shows up, that God comes down and incarnates, lives with us, alongside us, that God is not absent after all, but tangibly present. Why an infinite God might clothe Himself with finitude just to take a closer walk with us is beyond me, but it brings tears to my eyes all the same.
Christmas means the star actually leads to the God-child, and the journey will turn out to have been worthwhile.
"But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart."