Alaina Kleinbeck is the director of the Duke Youth Academy.
The senseless death of children has dampened many Christmas celebrations this year. But this is not the first Christmas derailed by the sorrow of incomprehensible loss. Too many mothers and fathers for too many years have quietly retreated from holiday dinner tables, tears of immeasurable grief staining their cheeks.
Matthew tells us in his gospel that even the very first Christmas was quickly shrouded with the brutal reality of untimely death. Herod, angered by the wise men’s deception, ordered the death of all children under the age of two in and around Bethlehem. The inconsolable grief, the wailing and the lamentation of the mothers in Bethlehem echoes in the empty heart cavities of mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers who have lost their own holy and innocent young to massacre, cancer, careless driving, and war. In many church traditions, December 28th is set aside as the feast day of the Holy Innocents, a remembrance of those children murdered in Bethlehem so many years ago.
Today, the church sits in lamentation in the midst of celebration. Yes, our God is with us. Jesus, our Emmanuel, has been born, but all is not well. His presence breaks into the darkness in our world, but the kingdom is not yet fully known, the darkness not fully expelled. The brutality of being human has not yet been fully removed. Senseless death makes this all too apparent, too real, too painful.
Today is the day that we name the truth of Christmas: Bethlehem was not still, it was not lost in deep and dreamless sleep, the hopes and fears of the people of Bethlehem were met by the sword of a tyrant’s army. This is the day that we put down our red cheer and don a grieving purple. This is the day that we can say that Christmas does not answer all our hopes and our fears, but brings an entirely new set of hopes and fears. This is the day that we remember honest celebrations do not tell lies of avoidance and denials of pain.
Today is the day our faithfulness is kept honest.
Faithfulness in this world of violence is not a life miraculously devoid of physical, emotional and spiritual anguish. Faithfulness shares the grief of the mothers of Bethlehem and Newtown and Durham and Syria. It knows incomprehensible loss, but does not claim to understand it or know its cause.
Faithfulness faces the brutality of our world and denies it the final word. It enters into places of bitter sorrow and abides with the brokenhearted. It rejects violence as our way of life and declares the mercy of an Incarnate God to be the truest mode of being. Faithfulness in this world names the truth of our pain and names Jesus as its overcomer, Messiah, Savior.
The feast of the Holy Innocents reminds us to pray in the midst of Christmas celebrations, Come, Lord Jesus, have mercy upon us.