Christmas in Newtown, and in Your Town. Where is the Hope? (by Joel Rainey)

Joel Rainey is the Director of Missions at Mid-Maryland Baptist Association, an adjunct professor at Capital Bible Seminary and blogs at Themelios.

Like most parents, I’ve taken stock the past two days of the time I spend with each of my children.  And like  most, I’m unsatisfied.  In the wake of Friday’s tragic shooting in Connecticut, many parents admit that they don’t spend the time with their kids that they would prefer.  Still, there are a few dates that have become traditions to block out on my calendar.

Friday morning was just such a date.  Though it was my last day in the office for the year, I took an hour from that day to travel to my 7-year-old’s elementary school for “Gingerbread House Day.”  I make it a point to be part of this event, and build and decorate a great (and tasty!) gingerbread house with my son.  All of our kids have their own unique areas in which they excel, but when it comes to creativity, my Seth tops us all, and one of many evidences of this is the elaborate way in which he decorates a gingerbread house.  We had a great time, along with other parents, teachers, and administration.  The result was that by 10:30 AM the classroom was filled with gingerbread homes that made it look like a fantasy, winter wonderland.

After this event, I arrived back at the office shocked to find constant CNN news alerts and log-jammed social media, all reporting the unspeakable events that unfolded in Newtown, CT.  It was some time later before I reconstructed the timeline in my head and realized that 20 first-graders were losing their lives in the same time-frame that my first-grader was building a gingerbread house with his dad.  At that moment, the line between fantasy and reality was never drawn more clearly for me.  Even now as I think about it, my heart breaks for those families.

As a parent, I experienced–and am still experiencing–all the emotions that go with bearing witness to an unspeakable massacre like this; sadness at the loss of life, shock at youth taken from us too soon, anger at the pure evil it took to commit such atrocity, and anxiety about protecting my own children from such an event.  And of course, all of this happened in the middle of the “season of hope,” but the more I’ve thought deeply about the events of this weekend, the more I realize that the “Christmas” most of our culture celebrates offers no hope at all.

On a subconscious level, many residents of Newtown know this too, as was evidenced by several families who are taking down their Christmas decorations in response to the shooting. In a sense, we should not only understand this way of processing grief, we should see a sense of appropriateness in it.  For most of us, the Christmas we celebrate isn’t real.  Its a fantasy world in which we pretend to live each December.  Whether its pretending we have money we don’t that results in consumer debt, seeking joy and happiness in lights and festivities that wain over just a few weeks, or feigning belief in a mythical fat man who will bring us presents, this “Christmas” is a dream that does nothing to bring us hope, especially in tragedy.

When you have lost a child at this time of year, there is nothing hopeful about a beautifully wrapped gift that will never be opened.  And in the wake of tragedy, the facade of tinsel, lights, and eight tiny reindeer fades quickly, and reveals our western, European-imported, American-materialized “holiday” for what it really is; a temporary month-long escape from the real world that provides zero hope.

If you want hope, you have to look to the real Christmas! Trouble is, the real Christmas doesn’t cover up our sin with shiny gift wrap.  It exposes it and crucifies it.   My friend Russ Moore wrote a profound piece yesterday reminding us that the context of the first Christmas actually looked more like the scene in Newtown on Friday than the fantasy world we live in every December. King Herrod’s murderous rage resulted in a blood-soaked Bethlehem, and while Jesus escaped death at this early moment in his life, the world into which He came was not safe.  The hope of the real Christmas is that Jesus willfully entered human history to personally experience the very fallen world from which we try to escape, and to redeem us from the real cause of it all: ourselves!

Such is another reason we are so turned-off by the real Christmas.  Rather than dress us up in red and green, it reveals our true nature, and our deepest need.  During moments like this, its much easier to stare down gun manufacturers and mental health professionals than it is to look in the mirror.  But blaming guns for this tragedy is as  ridiculous as the tendency of some fundamentalist preachers to blame Budweiser for every drunk driving accident.  Similarly, assuming every act of evil is a mental health problem is to deny the reality of demonic influence.  It is understandable why so many in our modern world would reject the existence of these spiritual realities, but followers of Jesus have no excuse, and if you can witness events like those that transpired this weekend and still not believe in demon possession, something is seriously wrong with you.  The problem is spiritual, and located precisely in the human heart; Adam Lanza’s, yours, and mine.

Jesus’ coming reminds us of how deeply we all stand in need of redemption.  The fake Christmas fairy tale our culture has invented covers up that nature.  But the Gospel presented in the real Christmas story reveals that each of us, apart from the grace of God, is capable of the very kind of atrocity that was committed this past Friday.  Its easier to believe in hell when you see something like this.  Its harder to fathom that you and I deserve it as well; that the same sin-sickness that motivated the perpetrator of this massacre resides in each of our hearts.  Societal sin is easy to believe in.  Corporate sin makes a good target for our rage.  But the truth of the Gospel is that you, personally, suck just as badly, and that’s a hard pill to swallow.

The real Christmas doesn’t make things look prettier than they really are for a month.  Instead, it redeems the ugly, the repulsive, and the sinful, and makes it truly beautiful for eternity.  Jesus came into a world of violence, walked among the worst of our sin for 33 years, and then willfully gave His life, bearing the wrath of God in our place, and giving us the hope of being fully restored to the people God created us to be.

Christmas is the incarnation of the God-man, and is thus the inauguration of the eventual elimination of the very evil that brings us the kind of facade-destroying sorrow that has been experienced in Connecticut this weekend.  Justice will be served, wrong will be righted, and people from every nation, tribe and tongue redeemed because of the real Christmas  The best thing followers of Jesus can do is ditch the fairy tale, and embrace the reality of Jesus.

So let’s have a conversation about the state of mental health in this country.  Let’s talk openly about how to keep firearms out of the hands of mentally unstable people.  Those are not illegitimate subjects of discussion.  But let’s not pretend that treatment of the symptoms will cure the disease.  And as followers of Jesus, let’s refuse to play the worldly game of wrapping our sin up in shiny paper every December and pretending that it doesn’t exist.

The deaths of these precious children, their teachers, and principal have destroyed “Christmas” as we know it–the “Christmas” most of us have invented and celebrate each year is gone, along with the false hope it provides.  Now, its time to turn to the real thing and offer Him to the world.

In memory of those slain at Sandy Hook Elementary School:

Charlotte Bacon, age 6

Daniel Barden, age 7

Rachel Davino,  age 29

Olivia Engel, age 6

Josephine Gay, age 7

Ana Marquez-Greene, age 6

Dylan Hockley, age 6

Dawn Hochsprung,  age 47

Madeleine F. Hsu, age 6

Catherine V. Hubbard, age 6

Chase Kowalski, age 7

Jesse Lewis, age 6

James Mattioli, age 6

Grace McDonnell, age 7

Anne Marie Murphy,  age 52

Emilie Parker, age 6

Jack Pinto, age 6

Noah Pozner, age 6

Caroline Previdi, age 6

Jessica Rekos, age 6

Avielle Richman, age 6

Lauren Rousseau,  age 30

Mary Sherlach, age 56

Victoria Soto, age 27

Benjamin Wheeler, age 6

Allison Wyatt, age 6


  1. Dave Miller says

    I appreciate Joel sharing this with us. I was going to inflict another one of my sermon manuscripts on the readers of SBC Voices, but Joel said many of the things I would be saying, and said them both better and more succinctly.

    Thank you, Joel.

  2. Dave Miller says

    Joel says: For most of us, the Christmas we celebrate isn’t real. Its a fantasy world in which we pretend to live each December. Whether its pretending we have money we don’t that results in consumer debt, seeking joy and happiness in lights and festivities that wain over just a few weeks, or feigning belief in a mythical fat man who will bring us presents, this “Christmas” is a dream that does nothing to bring us hope, especially in tragedy.

    Dave says: WOW!

  3. says

    One of the best perspectives yet. Great word, Joel. I have been passing this around. Thank you. You said here what I tried to say in my message yesterday, but much clearer.

  4. says

    I loved your post, but the deaths of these innocents at Sandy Hook did not destroy Christmas. We, the Christians have allowed the destruction of Christmas for a very long time now. The lack of tolerance for Christians, Jesus, and anything to do with God in our society was the main contributing factor to the destruction of Christmas as many of us remember it. When all Christians start to stand-up for our religious rights and overturn the political correctness to our favor, then Christ will be restored in Christmas.

  5. Christiane says

    thank you, JOEL, for sharing this

    I would add that when you spoke of understanding ways of processing grief, I thought
    ‘we don’t process grief, it processes us’ . . .

    and I remembered where I got that thought:

    “And even in our sleep,
    which cannot forget?
    falls drop by drop upon the heart,?
    until in our own despair,
    ?against our will,?
    comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

    (the poet Aeschylus)

    The wisdom from grief comes from an unwelcomed grace, I suppose, but the ‘change’ experienced is often an increase in compassion for others who are suffering
    . . . and compassion is a blessing we need more of in this world.

  6. says

    There is going to come a time when each of us will wake up for the very last time. For that period when we will draw our last breath. In that time, all that really matters is our trust in God. Trust that He meant every word He said in His scriptures, and in every promise He made to those who trust in Him.

    Let’s admit it: we don’t really know about heaven. I don’t think gold would make really good pavement, particularly after a refreshing spring shower of blessing. I think God’s descriptions of heaven were written not for the scientists among us to draw schematics so we’d know where the bathrooms will be, but to paint as beautiful a picture as possible for the finite minds of all ages .. include those of a few thousand years ago .. to grasp that there’s beauty beyond our grasping.

    So it’s going to boil down to our simply trusting God. Not in our understanding of Him or His plans, or our conclusions, or our predictions, but our having the same kind of trust a child that’s been lost in a shopping mall has, when he sees his daddy come to rescue him.

    That’s how it is, for me, with all the tragedies of late. My kids and my grandkids are grown. One grandkid is married and a homeowner, and the other has her Master’s and is a VP. But I can remember the years of their youth, and those of my own kids, and I can only imagine what those in the Sandy Hook situation are feeling now. And I figure the only handle they’ll ever really find for it is to trust simply and fully .. without knowing many of the answers .. in the one who said we’re going to have to trust Him like that little child.

  7. Jess Alford says

    Today on one of the news programs, pictures of the students along with the teachers that lost their lives were on the tv screen. The smiles of those
    precious children tugged at my heart, I had to get up and leave the room.

    I just don’t have the words to express what I feel about the awful tragedy
    that has taken place.

    I pray for the families of the victims.