A week ago I was sitting in a primary school watching one of my kids in a little Christmas musical. I was sitting there in the cafeteria with my wife, holding a toddler eager to watch her slightly bigger brother as he mouthed lyrics and tried to remember the right hand motions. My wife was with me, and it did not escape us that this very moment was precious: the sound of children singing Christmas songs, the taste of homemade butter cookies someone had baked for the occasion, the cheerful faces of other parents we know, and the sight of our tiny schoolboy wearing this halo-thing crafted from glitter, glue and construction paper. With two other kids in the same school—all healthy and happy with Christmas daydreams swirling in their minds—we acknowledged together that this was a precious moment in a precious life-stage.
At that same moment, in another elementary school, little children had the Christmas daydreams swirling in their precious minds interrupted by gunshots. Twenty of them will not wake up on Christmas morning to unwrap the gifts their mothers and fathers have stashed into attics and closets. They are gone. Brutally, viciously gone.
In the States, the media coverage has been continuous. But no microphones will be there to record the silence in those homes when, on December 25th, the bare feet of those twenty precious little children do not slap the floorspace between bed and tree.
I cannot write anything catchy and inspirational—I have four little kids, some of whom wear the same shoe size and the same size of fleece pajamas as those kids in Newtown, Connecticut. I know their weight, how they would feel in the arms of their dads. I have a good idea as to which shows they liked to watch. I know what toys they like, and could take a good guess as to what lies wrapped in cheery, glossy paper in those attics and closets.
What I do not know is the soul-eviscerating pain of their made-up and unslept-on beds on a Christmas morning.
I have no inspirational slogans to offer.
All I can do here is to write about Advent: waiting, hoping, leaning forward into the darkness, hoping that Someone is coming, coming to make things right. Coming with a new Age in which children play over adders’ nests… and play without the crack and smoke of gunfire.
Advent is to be celebrated with as much weeping as rejoicing.
To rejoice without tears may well be a proper way to celebrate our secular culture’s seasonal festivities. And that is okay. Good, actually, in many respects. But to celebrate will at times involve weeping with mothers in Newtown, and with mothers in Bethlehem— with all the mothers who have had children taken away by men with weapons. Advent is about waiting and expecting. Waiting because a sin-induced dysfunction has bled into every fiber of our hearts and our world. We are waiting because we know just enough about our God to expect that he will appear on the horizon bringing a definitive reconfiguration of all things.
He came once. Surely, he will come again.
That is why we rejoice somehow through sobs, why we do this unbelievable act of mustering just enough faith against all the odds and splutter out some expression of joy even when the tears sting like hell. This is not the joy of trite sentimentality, the joy of a vapid theology that says things like “God just needed some more little angels” (yes, this was said—see a response here). This is a raw, hard-fought, impossible joy that belongs to another realm and erupts out of the pain at the prospect of hearing something like,
“Behold, I am making all things new.” (Rev 21:5)
There is and there has always been a dark side of Christmas—A scandal in Nazareth: the betrothed is pregnant. A reminder of political oppression: we have to register for the census. A mother in labor without a bed: sorry, there is no room in the inn. And worst of all, the sound of soldiers bearing swords and entering homes:
A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation. Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more. (Mt 2:18; cf. Jer 31:15)
We are waiting for you Lord. You came once. Come again. Soon.
Editor’s Note: Unusually, this post will also be posted at Hopeful Realism at the same time, a time when many UK kids are leaving school for the Christmas holidays. It feels appropriate.