THE week of Christmas 2012, I had tried to stick to the plan that dictated that, on the first Sunday of Christmastide, we celebrate what’s called “The Service of Lessons and Carols” (in which there is no sermon), or, what I like to call “The Pastor’s Post-Christmas Day Break.”
Many of our regulars are either out of town or just really tired of church after the hullabaloo of Advent and Christmas, and so, on the Sunday after Christmas Day, we sing carols and read lessons, and I don’t have to preach, and my congregation doesn’t have to listen to me. It’s a great plan.
Unless, that is, a bunch of kids are killed in their elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, 11 days before Christmas, and nobody knows what to think or what to do or what to say, and so they come to church hoping to at least know how to pray. In a time like that, despite a preacher’s need to take some time off, that preacher’s gotta preach.
So we gathered in what felt like a solemn mass at Christmastide. I ranted a bit. I find myself getting pretty snotty about ridiculous commercial versions of Christmas which have no basis in the biblical text.
In the midst of trying to understand what there was for a preacher to say about children being slaughtered in their schoolrooms at Christmastime, I found myself agitated by the sentimental Christmas music, still playing in shops, and asked myself: how did Christmas go from what it was originally — a story of alienation, political tyranny, homelessness, working-class people, pagans, and angels — to a Hallmark Channel, Precious Moments, Norman Rockwell delusion?
I didn’t know the answer, but I suspected that certain songs were, at least in part, to blame. So I just railed against that in the sermon, since I had no idea what to say about the rest.
IF I asked 100 people the questions who brought gifts to the Christ child, how many people were there, where were the people from, and where did they bring their gifts to . . . inevitably everyone would respond: “Well, three kings from the Orient brought the baby Jesus gifts in the manger.” And the people around would likely nod their heads and say, “Yep, that sounds right.” Three kings from the Orient bringing gifts to Jesus in a manger is a charming story, but it’s not actually the one we find in the Bible.
A closer reading of Matthew shows that we have no idea how many people were there, and we don’t know how far east they came from. When they found the child, they entered not a stable, or a barn with a manger, but a house. And, most importantly, they were definitely not kings. They were Magi, as in magicians, and not the cute kind you hire for your kid’s birthday party.
More likely, they were opportunistic, pagan, soothsaying, tarot-card-reading astrologers. Yet history made them out to be kings, maybe because the reality that they were magicians is too distasteful, since no one really wants the weird fortune-teller lady from the circus with her scarves and crystal balls to be the first to discover the birth of our Lord.
So the story has been nicened up into an idealised picture of multicultural diplomacy. This is ironic, turning the Magi into kings, like we are doing them some great favour, because, honestly, everything in Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus is decidedly anti-king. I mean, there is a king in that text, but it’s Herod: a scheming, frightened, insecure troglodyte who puts a hit out on a toddler.
That is what this text has to say about kings. Turning the Magi into kings in our Christmas songs sharply represents our need to tidy up the story.
But the Epiphany story of Herod and infanticide reveals a God who has entered our world as it actually exists, and not as the world we often wish it would be. God’s love is too pure to enter into a world that does not exist, even though this is often how we treat Jesus — like we are trying to shelter him from reality.
We often behave as though Jesus is only interested in saving and loving a romanticised version of ourselves, or an idealised version of our mess of a world, and so we offer to him a version of our best selves. With our Sunday-school shoes on, we sing songs about kings and drummers at his birth, perhaps so that we can escape the Herod in ourselves and in the world around us.
BUT we’ve lost the plot if we use religion as the place where we escape from difficult realities, instead of as the place where those difficult realities are given meaning.
It’s like if you were stuck in a subway tunnel during a sudden blackout. You can respond to the fear and darkness either by using the remaining battery on your cellphone to entertain yourself with Candy Crush, or by using that phone as a light to see others around you, to see the contour of your environment, and maybe even to walk towards a light source more reliable and powerful than your own.
Religion can be a way to hide, numb, or even entertain ourselves like a spiritual Candy Crush, either through the comforting blandness and predictability of mainline Protestantism, or through the temporary lifting of our spirits and hands in Evangelical worship.
Of course, there are many ways of pretending shit ain’t broke in ourselves and in the world, but escapist religion is a classic option, and churches have seemed to turn into places where we have endless opportunities to pretend that everything is fine.
But church was never meant to be a place for escapism. It can and should be a place where we dive right into difficult truths. After all, we live in a world where, in 2012, 11 days before Christmas, Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School and slaughtered innocent children.
In the middle of what was supposed to be the “Christmas season”, blinking lights and cheerful music suddenly felt out of place. Instead of being in a cosy “Christmas mood”, we were left wondering, “Where the hell is God?”
WHEN we find ourselves in a world where we see up-to-the-minute images of human suffering, such as parents running past the police tape outside an elementary school, their faces filled with primal panic, not knowing if their child is alive or shot dead, can we really afford quite so much sentimentality in Christianity?
Maybe soft-focus photos of doves flying in front of waterfalls, inspirational verses on coffee cups, and overproduced recordings of earnest praise music aren’t really helping us.
I often wonder how Jesus responds to our ignoring of reality in favour of emotional idealism, but I know for sure that the Church and those we might serve aren’t benefiting from it — not when we live in a world where suffering is as real as Herod and Boko Haram and Sandy Hook, where people are longing for something to help make sense of their suffering. Pretending that everything is fine isn’t helping anyone.
I LOVE the Christmas season. I’m thrilled when we finally put up the lights and dig out the Ella Fitzgerald Christmas album, and spend more time with family, but the story of Jesus’s birth has more to offer us than that.
I am not suggesting that Herod now be placed on wrapping paper, or that we sit solemnly instead of joyfully in front of our roaring Christmas fireplaces, but I do think that having the Slaughter of the Innocents take up space with singing angels and shepherds in our churches might help us to know where to turn when a horrible young man kills a bunch of kids as they sit in their schoolroom.
Images of Santa kneeling at a manger are comforting, maybe; but they’re not helping us make sense of the world as it actually exists. The story of Christmas is as much about comfort and joy as it is about how messed up our world actually is. The risk we run if we do not know the real Christmas story is that we can start to think that Christianity in general offers only cookies and hot cocoa and heavenly peace, as we witness children slaughtered in their schoolrooms.
What is precarious about biblical illiteracy, or neglect, surrounding the Christmas story is not that we unblinkingly place shepherds and Magi together at the birth of Jesus (characters from two totally different narratives, spaced apart by years); it’s that we don’t think to place Herod there.
We may be used to hearing some Christians say “Let’s keep Christ in Christmas,” but my friend Joy Carroll Wallis wrote an essay called “Keeping Herod in Christmas,” and I have to say I’m with her, because the world into which Christ was born was certainly not a Rockwell painting. The world has never been that world.
God did not enter the world of our nostalgic, silent-night, snow-blanketed, peace-on-earth, suspended reality of Christmas. God slipped into the vulnerability of skin, and entered our violent and disturbing world. This Christmas story — the story of Herod, the story of the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents — is as much a part of Christmas and Epiphany as are shepherds and angels.
SO, ON the Saturday before we gathered to hear the nine lessons traditionally read for the Service of Lessons and Carols, I told my new intern, Alex, “We’re adding a reading tonight: the Slaughter of the Innocents. During the prayers of the people, let’s read the names of the 26 teachers and children who died, and maybe their ages, too. We’ll ring a bell after each.”
“You mean 27?” he replied.
“I’m sorry, what’s that?” I asked.
“Adam Lanza. The shooter. He died too.”
“No way,” I said before even thinking about it.
Alex didn’t have to say anything else. I knew he was right.
The other aspect of the story of Jesus’s birth is that, as John’s Gospel says, a light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. God chose to enter a time as violent and faithless as our own, yes. But the other thing we must confess is that the light of Christ cannot, will not, shall not ever be overcome by that darkness. Not by Herod, and not by Lanza. The light of Christ is so bright that it shines even for me and even for them.
I finally relented. “Fine,” I said, “but I am registering my opposition to God’s grace.”
“I’m sure God is super-hurt about it,” Alex replied.
Two days later, when we stood in front of the congregation, Alex solemnly struck a bell for each of the names of dead teachers and children.
“Charlotte Bacon, six.” A bell rang.
“Daniel Barden, seven.” Another bell.
“Olivia Engel, six.” The vibration from each bell felt as though it were shaking my insides so hard that images of every six-year-old I’d ever known filled my mind, and with each bell strike I saw them lying on a classroom floor.
I couldn’t read the final name right away, because it took me a minute to reach deep enough into my theological convictions in order to find the mercy to do so. I had been so intensely focused on telling the truth about the kind of world God entered, and how it was as violent and faithless as our own, that I had forgotten in my sermon to actually mention why God entered it.
If I couldn’t also speak the truth that God came to save us, all of us; that God created us in God’s image, and that lives we’d rather extinguish are still precious to their maker, and that the North Star that so brightly lit the way for the Magi to find the Christ-child shone for them and Herod and me and Charlotte Bacon and Lanza, then I really had no business being a preacher that day. So I dug deep to speak the truth of God.
“And in obedience to your command to love the enemy and pray for those who persecute us” — my voice cracked as if the courage were draining out of it — “Adam Lanza, 20.”
The final bell rang.
Nadia Bolz-Weber is Pastor of the Lutheran church House of All Sinners and Saints, in Denver, Colorado.
This is an edited extract from Accidental Saints: Finding God in all the wrong people by Nadia Bolz-Weber, published by Canterbury Press at £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70) (Books, 27 November).