By Lloyd Gray
The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School has endless sad dimensions, but among the most poignant was that many in the community, according to news reports, felt the need to take down their Christmas decorations and to deny themselves any form of holiday observance. To acknowledge Christmas seemed to many townspeople inappropriate, perhaps even disrespectful to the dead and their families.
This impulse is completely understandable. The people of Newtown experienced absolute devastation through an unthinkable event. How could they surround themselves with tokens of Christmas cheer at such a time?
Yet clear away the tinsel and presents and take down the tree and Christmas is still there, stripped to its essentials. And its message is one that the people of Newtown, like human beings everywhere, desperately need to hear.
Not the convivial message of manufactured holiday merriment, nor even the secularized, sanitized version of “good will toward men,” but the message of Emmanuel – God with us.
The Incarnation is not about a sweet baby in a manger who doesn’t cry or other such sentimental nonsense. It’s not even about the heavenly hosts and the wise men and all the other familiar elements of the story.
If you believe the basis of orthodox Christianity, the message is about a God who not only understands suffering but has endured it, who not only created, loves and empathizes with human beings but who became one of us, who lived, died, laughed, cried and suffered grief and heartache just like the rest of us – before giving himself to excruciating final suffering on our behalf.
Christmas, stripped to its religious essentials, proclaims that whatever humans confront, it is nothing that God has not known and nothing that God cannot, in the divine continuum, redeem.
The people of Newtown, and the rest of us in observing what happened there, have seen the reality of evil in the world in a particularly horrifying way, but certainly not as the last word on things. Who could not see redemption already beginning to surface in the stories of the heroic teachers who fought to save their children?
It is in times of horrific tragedy, or even simple personal grief, that it is most important that the message of Christmas be heard, which is that whatever happens, God knows it hurts, and God is there.
That makes the ruminations of twisted theology that have been heard recently saying God didn’t protect the children at Sandy Hook because organized prayer wasn’t allowed in their school to be unspeakably outrageous, and completely counter to the essence of the Christmas message.
The Sandy Hook tragedy repeats the greatest conundrum of faith: Why, if God is good, is there suffering? No one has satisfactorily answered that in the millennia the question has been pondered, but Christmas tells Christians that whatever happens, God is with us. That may not seem enough, but its revelation to people of faith can be what they need to get through suffering to whatever the other side of it holds.
No one can blame those in Newtown who don’t want to observe Christmas, nor anyone else in any place and time whose own circumstances of tragedy and suffering make the holiday as we have shaped it only an additional source of sorrow and pain. But the Christmas message of the incarnation will be there for them, even if they aren’t conscious of it: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Christmas is about the light of the world. The darkest times are when the light is needed most.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.