16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.
17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
18 “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Mat 2:16-18 TNIV).
Once again “Herod” blemishes our Advent season.
Yesterday the unthinkable played out before us in Newtown, Connecticut. Shockingly, a young gunman forced his way into the Sandy Hook Elementary School, apparently just moments before the school would lock its doors as part of security protocols implemented a year ago. Once inside the young man proceeded to gun down the school’s Principal, Psychologist, and two other adults as well. But the real targets were the 20 children, as young as 5 and no older than 10, who within minutes were slaughtered. Prior to the slaughter the shooter had murdered his own mother. After the slaughter he turned the gun on himself.
“Stuff like this does not happen in Newtown,” a teacher lamented. Indeed, there had been only one murder in the last ten years. Only one, but not a child, not a baby, and not at Christmas time. Only one … until now.
Everyone in Newtown, as well as across the nation and world, is asking, “Why?” Some are also asking, “What if … ?” More will join them as Advent proceeds, 2012 ends, and a New Year begins. There are a lot of questions and few answers. Actually, no real answers. To be sure, in coming days investigations will unravel and reveal some of the mysteries at the center of the massacre. We may acquire a more precise and detailed account of the “how,” the “what,” and even some of the “why” of the slaughter. But these “answers” will not truly address the questions or those who ask them—not in ways that resolve or help, and certainly not in ways that could heal.
There are many questions and no real answers, at least none that “feel” as right as they might seem to people who ponder the “problem of evil.” As valid as such ponderings may be, at a time like this—during Advent, for God’s sake and ours–and in the face of the slaughter of innocents, the very proposing of such answers are bound to wound more than heal. For this question, this problem, now assaulting our senses with the most vivid and horrible digital clarity, does not allow so easy—some might say “any”—resolution.
No, there are simply the facts. In places like Newtown, maniacal rage can disturb the peace, at the cost of the littlest and most vulnerable of our citizens and families. In truth, not only in Newtown, but all over the world such rage goes on rampage.
Within the last week Lavone and I have been in the Holy Land, where some of the most unholy and heinous things commonly occur. We have brothers and sisters there who seek to help thousands of refugees streaming out of Syria in recent months. Their stories reflect the rage and terror that leads to countless (only God knows) innocents suffering and dying. A week ago we were in Bethlehem—birthplace to the hope of the world, but now divided by a huge wall separating “them” from “us.” No matter the politics of it, on both sides of that wall the people live in fear of the likely slaughter of their innocents. The builders of the wall seek to protect their little ones from the terror that threatens them. And most of those contained by the wall “feel” the effects of their containment as the slaughter of their little ones in slow-motion, extending into however many years it takes to extinguish the hope that makes life worth the living. Both “them” and “us” live more in fear than freedom. Both envision the pain of future massacres.
In places like Newtown and virtually “Everytown,” the most promising Advent may suffer the rage that leads to the massacre of innocents. No holiday cheer quite conceals either the fact of the rage or the fearful consequences it sometimes brings. These are the facts.
Yet those sobering facts are themselves prominent in the Advent story itself. We are not the first to face them and we won’t be the last. That first Advent, after the announcement of the Messiah’s conception, after the Messiah’s birth, after the Heavens bear witness to the Messiah’s coming, and after the Holy Innocent receives his first visitors and worshippers, the maniacal and threatened King Herod flies into a rage and orders the slaughter of every baby boy in Bethlehem. He only wanted to kill one of them, but once the killing starts only all of them will suffice.
When we visited Bethlehem last week, and this story was retold, the story-teller noted that Bethlehem at the time was a very small village. “Probably,” he said, “there were only about 20 babies slaughtered.” He meant this innocently, I’m sure, but I thought at the time, “That’s exactly 20 too many!” Now the number 20 seems way too much!
You can be sure that everyone in that town, small as it was, asked all the questions we ask today. In between their sobs, they wailed, “Why?” They agonized, “What if … ?” and “If only … !” This week that part of the Christmas story seems oh so real to all, regardless of one’s creed or confession. This week—20 children—take us to Bethlehem where we hear and join the people who weep and “who refuse to be comforted, because their little ones are no more!”
Neither for then nor now can we provide “answers.’ We now know that Herod was that way. The Bethlehem massacre was not Herod’s first nor his last unspeakable crime against humanity. And we know that his crimes against humanity were also against divinity, particularly the divinity swaddled in strips of cloth and nestled in a feeding trough.
Again, both then and now, there are no answers that really answer all the questions. There are only the facts, undeniable and painful as they are. These things happened in Bethlehem, in Newtown, and in Everytown.
All we have are the facts of what happened and happens, and they hardly put us in the mood to say, “Merry Christmas!”
But, the facts—past and present—are more than they seem. We can follow these facts to other facts, which lead to still other facts that offer us at least the hint of hope, as unlikely or impossible as it may seem.
In Bethlehem One of the innocents escaped. I know, that raises even more why questions. I know. So, again, there are no good “answers” to those questions, but there are the facts. One child escaped, one child found safety and security enough to grow up. One child lived and thrived, in fact lived to die another day, another way. But before that day, he lived. He lived to welcome and bless the children—all of them anywhere within reach. He lived to show us the heart and way of the Father who sent him. He lived to right-size the world so that it “fits” and “works” for the little ones especially who have yet to recognize the difference between their right and left, the difference between good and evil. He lived to demonstrate that the deepest realities of the universe somehow hinge on what it means to be little ones. He lived to show that at the very root of reality there is but one Father and many children, who are innocent or could be again. He lived to subvert all the Herods of the world, to defuse the rage that fuels them, so that at long last all the innocents can be safe. He lived, yes, for all of this, and then to die, but in another way. Not at the mercy of unbridled rage, but as an expression of unbounded love. Love unbounded and free, yet sacrificing self, submitting to the rage, and joining all the innocents who came before him and will follow him.
One child lived to die that other day and in that other way. He lived to die, then to live another day that will have no end, no Herods, no rage, no slaughter, no tears, no wounds too deep to be healed, and … no questions that will then matter.
All we have are the facts and the stories they tell. On the day after what happened in Newtown that doesn’t seem like much. But things are not in fact as they seem or feel. One child lived, so that all may live in his day and way.
This is the hope that can help and heal us.