Thinking about the "shadow side" of Christmas, and the Holy Innocents

As I was reading this good editorial in the New York Times today–

it got me thinking about the “shadow side” of Christmas. Usually, we don’t talk about it very much–although frankly, this year, with the shootings in Newtown it was more on our minds than usual. But the shadow side of Christmas encompasses much more than just these big, traumatic events of grief and suffering. It also includes the singular events that can get lost in the busy shuffle of the holiday season.  Some of us lost a loved one this year; that meant this Christmas there was an empty place at the table, and an empty place in our hearts—and so grief cast a little shadow over our Christmas celebrations. Some of us are estranged from family—a son or a daughter, a grandchild—and this Christmas there was no visit, and no phone call—and so sadness and loneliness cast a little shadow over our Christmas celebrations. Some of us have been hit hard by the economic downturn, so much so that not only could we not celebrate Christmas the way we are used to, but we’re even concerned about day-to-day living—food, heat, and shelter—and so anxiety and worry cast a little shadow over our Christmas celebrations. And finally, some of us and some of our loved ones struggle with alcoholism and depression that all the cheer of the season only seems to make worse—and so frustration and disappointment cast a little shadow over our Christmas celebrations.

Personally, I don’t think we offer enough spaces and places to talk about these shadows this time of year—certainly not in our shared civic spaces, and sometimes not even in our churches.  The reason for this, of course, is that everyone is supposed to be happy this time of year! You’ve seen the commercials—all the family comes from far and wide to gather in the house for singing and laughing; and in all the pictures, in all the images, no one is missing, no one is sick, no one is frowning. If someone says, “Merry Christmas,” you’re supposed to say, “Merry Christmas” back—even if you’re not feeling so merry. Just keep your little Christmas shadow to yourself, please—Christmas is a happy season, so don’t spoil the fun. And so we swallow our Christmas shadows, and bury them deep.

Well, there is nothing wrong with being happy around Christmas time—I love this season—but the fact is, happiness alone does not tell the full story of Christmas.  Instead, the day after tomorrow, on Dec. 28th, the Christian church commemorates the feast day of the Holy Innocents, the first Christian martyrs—those little children whom King Herod killed in a desperate attempt to destroy Jesus, the new king, whom Herod knew threatened his power. As you may remember, the wise men had come to Jerusalem looking for Jesus, and when they met with Herod, he told them to go to Bethlehem immediately, but then to come back and tell him once they had found Jesus. However, the wise men were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, and so they defied him and went home by another route. This infuriated Herod, and so he took matters into his own hands. He gave the order to slaughter every child two years old and younger in and around Bethlehem. Since he couldn’t find Jesus, the one child he was looking for, he figured he would just kill all the children, and in the process, Jesus would be killed, too. In telling this story, Matthew quotes from Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation.” A voice was heard indeed—can you imagine the weeping? Merry Christmas? Not for those mothers. Not for those families. Not that year.

For us in the church 2,000 years later, it is worth asking why Matthew included this story in his account of Jesus’ birth.  It’s a horrible story, describing some of the worst kind of violence we can imagine—indeed, the kind of violence that shocked the nation and the world a few weeks ago. Why not just leave it out, then, and not mar the peace and the beauty of the manger, and the star, and baby? Why link such an ugly, tragic episode to the birth of Jesus? It would be a more perfect Christmas without all that death and violence, wouldn’t it?  

Well, I think perhaps that is exactly why this story made it into Matthew’s Gospel after all; because the birth of Jesus Christ is not about perfection: it’s not about everything being perfectly wonderful, and everyone being perfectly happy. God didn’t wait until the world was perfect before coming down and being born as a human being; instead, God chose to come down right now, right in the midst of death, of evil, of tragedy, of loss, in order to ensure that these shadow moments in our lives do not stand unchallenged, and do not swallow us up in grief. Death may come, tragedy may strike, but we do not need to fear them; in the incarnation God is with us, and none of the powers of sin and evil are stronger than the light and life of Jesus Christ.

The incarnation, then, is not about perfection—perfection in the world, or perfection in our lives. Instead, the incarnation is about light shining in the darkness and not being overcome by it; it’s about life conquering death, and bringing with it the promise of eternal life together with God and all our loved ones; it’s about hope, hope that promises a brighter future, something more than the difficulties and losses we experience here and now, and the sure knowledge that God is making a way for us where there seems to be no way. And finally, the incarnation is about love, a divine love so strong that it will not let us go, and it will not abandon us, regardless of the challenges we face, and the dangers that confront us.

The truth is, there’s no such thing as a perfect Christmas: the fact is, not even that first Christmas was perfect. Jesus was born into a world of sin, of grief, of death and of evil: in other words, a world that bears a marked resemblance to our own world. And, in some ways, that is just how it should be, because Jesus didn’t come for perfection, and God doesn’t promise us perfection—that’s not part of the deal. Even with Jesus in the world, there will still be death. Even with Jesus in the world, there will still be suffering.  Even with Jesus in the world, there will still be shadows.

What we do receive, however, is the sure promise of God that these experiences of grief and struggle and loss will not have the last word. They will not stand forever. They will not and do not define us. Instead, all our tears will be wiped away, and mourning will turn into joy. The dawn will come, the sun will rise, and we will see the glory of the Lord. Jesus comes into this world that we might have life, and life abundant—and we will have that life.

Jesus’ coming is a direct challenge to the powers of evil, and puts them on notice that no longer will they roam unchallenged through creation; God’s justice will prevail. And to those mothers and all those who grieve like them; and to those innocents and all those who suffer and die like them, the church says, “Comfort, comfort ye, my people. For you, too, there will be life.” Life for them; life for us; life for all. Who needs perfection? We have Jesus—now, and always.

2 thoughts on “Thinking about the "shadow side" of Christmas, and the Holy Innocents

  1. Thank you. This hits the mark for so many, and leads us to marvel at the significance of Jesus as flesh and blood, in a sometimes grisly flesh and blood world.


  2. Yes, thank you. I too agree that we don't make enough room for Christmas grief in our congregations. I attended a Blue Christmas service this year with some of my parishioners, and appreciated the opportunity to name the shadows for what they are, while clinging to the hope and promise of the Light.


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