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A woman kneels in front of a fence with the names of the 20 children killed a week ago at a memorial at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 21, 2012.
Do there seem to be 20 new little stars twinkling in the sky during this dark Christmas season? You have to look carefully, because this is a time of national grief, when seeing any light at all in the darkness can seem difficult, perhaps even impossible.
What does Christmas mean this year, after 20 children and six adults who tried to protect them were massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School? What does it mean in light of the shooting death of the mother of the shooter and the shooter himself?
The normal holiday celebrations with tinsel and colored lights seem too weak to bear the weight of deeply religious questions raised by such a senseless amount of violence. Why do the innocent suffer and where is God in all of this?
This unspeakable tragedy, however, does reveal an important aspect of the birth of Jesus that is often overlooked in the shopping, wrapping, and partying that has become the culturally dominant version of the Christmas season.
Jesus came into the world as a vulnerable little child. This very vulnerability of Jesus as a baby teaches us something fundamental about the depth of meaning contained in the idea of “God-with-us” as taught through the Christian Gospels.
From the moment Jesus is born, King Herod, Rome’s client king of Judea, is threatened by Jesus’ very existence and seeks to have him killed. According to the Gospel of Matthew (2:1-8), “Wise men from the east” see a new star. They come to Jerusalem and ask Rome’s puppet king about this revelation of a new “king of the Jews.” Herod is “frightened,” but he does what controlling power normally does when it is threatened, as I have written, it covers up, it pretends, it dissembles, in short, it deceives. These are always the hallmarks of the one called “the deceiver.”
The “wise men,” however, are wise to Herod’s deception and they do not reveal to him the location of the baby Jesus. But when thwarted, controlling power lashes out in murderous rage. Herod, when he “saw he had been tricked by the wise men…was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under.” And grief ruled the land.
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:16-18)
This is it. This is where we are in the biblical birth narratives after Sandy Hook Elementary School.
What can be glimpsed at Christmas is God’s choice to be present to humanity and to do so first as a vulnerable little child whose life is immediately threatened by abusive power. It is such a daring, impossible idea, this God-with-us as a vulnerable baby who can be killed, it should make you gasp, and tremble from the risk, and it can make you afraid.
I was afraid after the news unfolded about what had happened in Newtown, Conn. As a mother and a grandmother, all I wanted to do was grasp my little grandchildren and hold them and never let them go, never let them out of my sight. It was exactly as President Obama said, as a parent (and now as a grandparent), your heart walks around outside your body in these precious children. Every kindly heart in the country is bleeding for these parents in Newtown.
The risks are so awful. How can we bear it as those who love children and want to protect them? Every day, there are risks.
So here is the Christmas miracle. This is exactly who God is, the one who willingly shares those terrible risks, the one who chooses the power of vulnerability over the power of abusive control. It is the baby Jesus in his manger, God-with-us, versus the sham of the grasping, controlling power of Rome and its puppet, King Herod.
God’s vulnerable power reveals what we need to know when tragedy strikes: you are not alone.
“Don’t be afraid,” the angels say. (Luke 2:10)
Don’t be afraid. You are not alone. Your children are not alone.
Former president of Chicago Theological Seminary (1998-2008), the Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlewaite is professor of theology at Chicago Theological Seminary and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress
Related content on On Faith:
* Hallowell: The politicization of tragedy
* Dixon: Idolatry of the gun
* Thistlethwaite:Obama gives voice to the new national determination on gun control
* National Cathedral dean: ‘… the gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby’
* Graham: Why the shock and awe?
* Pace: Comfort the grieving
* Stanley: In tragedy we grieve; in God, we hope
* Quinn: Where was God?
* Thistlethwaite:God weeps: 27 children, staff killed in Conn. school shooting