“A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted … because they are no more.”
Massacre of the Innocents (Peter Paul Rubens)
It is Advent, and we Christ-followers are celebrating Christmas. We have been singing carols of God’s deliverance, erecting beautifully painted replicas of Jesus’ nativity on mantels and in yards. But what we are really celebrating in Advent is the arrival of Creator God into the violent mess of a poisoned creation, all hope resting on someone as unlikely as a helpless, bastard baby born in the heart of the Middle East to a teenage girl of no popular consequence. The hope of the world would rest on a little Jewish infant wrapped in rags in the stinky stall of a barn, stuffed into a trough licked out by a cow or maybe a donkey who’d had their fill of supper in it. And it was because there was no other place to advent in, no other place that better resembled the stink and smell of naked creation. And so God came and made his dwelling in the slums of our world.
Should I write in response to the loss of babies yesterday in their Connecticut elementary school? Words seem worthless, intrusive, impotent. “Victims” is an inadequate word. “Killings” is a scrawny word for what has happened. “Shootings” sounds sterile and eerily objective. These words fail to describe the hole eating its way through hearts raw with disbelief and dismay. In the presence of the sacred, gentle lives that were stolen in a brutal, senseless act of utter brokenness, they fall desperately short.
And so it is not words but silence we most need, silence to both mourn and honor the beloved, the treasured, the indescribably valuable little children and their caretakers.
Dare I join the fury of impotent words? Rachel is weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted because they are no more. And what words could possibly hold her?
God did not advent only in our slums; he entered into a landscape rife with violence and wrongful death. It wasn’t only a deranged man yesterday who gunned down the innocents; it was a deranged and power-mongering Herod who ordered the slaughter of Bethlehem’s baby boys once he’d heard those Magi had tricked him and concealed the location of the baby King of the Jews. We could remove every gun, every violent video game or Hollywood film, we could install better security, more mental health resources in every city, send our children to school in bullet-proof vests. But we are, alas, powerless to remove the sickness of the human heart. We can no more save our children than we can save a sick 20-year-old man with an arsenal of weapons — or than we can save ourselves.
No, we need a savior for that. Only the Christ child can cure the mark of evil on the human heart. So this Advent, what can we do but move silently and expectantly into that stable? What can we do but silently light the Hope candle in the advent wreath, refusing to allow the darkness of our world to dim the light of salvation? With the advent of God in the violent slums of human tragedy, he has indeed declared his salvation for his people:
Hear the word of the LORD, O nations,
and declare it in the coastlands far away;
say, ‘He who scattered Israel will gather him,
and will keep him as a shepherd keeps his flock.’
For the LORD has ransomed Jacob
and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.
They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,
and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD,
over the grain, the wine, and the oil,
and over the young of the flock and the herd;
their life shall be like a watered garden,
and they shall languish no more.
Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy;
I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
I will feast the soul of the priests with abundance,
and my people shall be satisfied with my goodness,
declares the LORD.
-The Prophet Jeremiah