I had just finished officiating at a funeral yesterday when I came into the office and heard the news about the horrific shooting at a Connecticut elementary school. Death is the enemy that stares us all in the face on a daily basis, but there are certain days that make it seem like the enemy is winning.
As I watched the news coverage, it struck me that this tragedy is especially difficult because of it’s proximity to Christmas. A season that we expect to be all sweetness and light has turned dark for the families of the victims and the family of the mentally disturbed shooter. It’s painful to imagine the unopened presents, the incomplete child artwork meant for Christmas cards for mom and dad, the empty places around the tree that families will be dealing with during this season that’s supposed to be about peace and joy.
I am reminded, however, that the Christmas story has its own dark side that speaks to us poignantly today. In Matthew’s version (2:16-18), after Jesus is born, the children of Bethlehem are massacred by another mentally disturbed assailant. Most historians and psychologists believe that Herod the Great suffered from a paranoid psychotic disorder–one that led him to murder even some of his own children and his beloved wife because he thought they were plotting against him. When Herod hears of a king born in Bethlehem, his disturbed mind leads him to order the deaths of children under two years old as a way of eliminating any rival to the throne. It’s another senseless tragedy in the midst of a string of senseless and brutal tragedies spanning human history.
I have read many posts in the last day quoting the lament of Matthew 2:18, which is actually a quote from Jeremiah 31:15–“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.” Jeremiah writes about the people of Israel being taken away into exile in Babylon. Matthew borrows the quote to express the pain felt in Bethlehem as God’s children, innocent children, are no more. It seems a very appropriate verse for us to remember today.
We remember, too, that the infant Jesus was spared from this tragedy. Joseph was warned in a dream to take the child and his mother into exile in Egypt (2:13-15). I have often wondered why God didn’t warn the other fathers and mothers about this impending tragedy? Indeed, that’s the mystery of suffering. It seems to random, so out of control, and where is God in the midst of that?
We might cry out to God for not saving the innocent. We would not be alone in that. The Psalms are full of laments to God in the midst of pain and tragedy. We ask, “Why?” and often the answer isn’t obvious or forthcoming. Job cries out to God for meaning, but he doesn’t receive a five-point explanation for his suffering. We wonder when God will speak to us in the midst of all this pain and sorrow. Does God stand apart from us? Has he forsaken us? It’s easy for us to think so on days like yesterday.
And yet, if we’re paying attention, we remember the whole story. We remember that God’s innocent son will suffer and die on a cross at the hands of a screaming mob. We remember that God’s way of dealing with evil and death are not by ignoring them, but by becoming human and going through them. We remember that our God is not remote from our suffering, but suffers with us and for us. This is the great mystery of the gospel.
In January, we will be launching a series of sermons called “What Shall We Say?: Evil, Suffering, and the Presence of God.” We will look at some of the deep questions we have about human suffering, and about how we deal with the pervasive evil that seems to dominate our consciousness every day. We don’t promise easy answers, no five-point plans–only a chance to turn our eyes toward the cross.
And so, we grieve. We weep for the children, their teachers, their families today. Indeed, we weep for all of those who will die today and every day, for all those who suffer. But may we not grieve today “as those who have no hope” (I Thessalonians 4:13). May we turn to the cross and the one who suffers with us–whose suffering, somehow, leads to the ultimate victory over death.