Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christmas in the Shadow of Tragedy

             I wanted to take a moment to share what my experience has been this Christmas.  Like others in our country and around the world, I was horrified and deeply grieved at the tragedy that occurred in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, when 20 children and 6 adults were murdered at an elementary school.  It has been difficult to look forward to Christmas after this tragedy, grieving with those who have lost loved ones.
            This year, I have approached the story of the birth of Jesus with a heavy heart, with questions, and with tears.  But as I re-read the familiar account in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, I am reminded that there is a deep purpose for the Christmas story, even (perhaps especially) in the aftermath of sorrow and loss.  God became a human being; a real, historical person who actually lived and died.  Jesus left his glory behind and came to earth to experience life as one of us.   "The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”) (Matthew 1:23, NIV).
            Of all religions and belief systems I have ever studied, this story strikes me as the most baffling, the most strange, and yet the most hopeful.  God is not totally separate from humanity, indifferent to our lives, refraining from becoming involved with us.  He could have left us to live and die on our own, permanently separated from him by sin.  Instead, he chose to live and die as one of us.
            Jesus came to earth as a baby, helpless and dependent on his parents just like any other baby.  He was born, not in a palace or place of high honor and wealth, but in a stable in a tiny, obscure town, to a poor couple living under Roman oppression.  He grew to adulthood just like any of us.  He experienced hunger and thirst (Matthew 4:2; John 19:28), grew tired (Matthew 8:24), wept (Matthew 26:38; John 11:35), and was subject to all of the temptations and frustrations that we face (Hebrews 4:15).  No human experience was spared him, not even suffering and death.  Moreover, his death on the cross to make us right with God gave life and hope to all humanity, forever (John 3:16; Romans 3:21-26; 1 John 5:11-12).  His resurrection from the dead was the first of many, for all who believe in Jesus will someday be raised to eternal life (1 Corinthians 15:12-26). 
            What does this mean for us?  This world is still full of pain and hardship.  Until Jesus returns, we will all experience pain, loss, suffering and death.  Tragedies such as natural disasters, sickness, abuse, and mass murder like the incident in Connecticut, still occur.  The story of Christmas will not stop these tragedies for now, nor will all of our pain instantly cease.  But this year as I approach the story of Christmas and think about the baby in the manger, I have begun to see the story in a new light.
            Jesus, God in human flesh, mourns with us.  He has entered our pain.  He has come down, not to immediately vanquish all of our enemies or eliminate all of our suffering, but to experience it with us.  He has come to give us love in the midst of hatred (John 13:34), light in the midst of darkness (John 8:12), and hope in the midst of despair.  Jesus said, "In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart!  I have overcome the world" (John 16:33, NIV).
            This Christmas as we grieve, let us remember why he came.