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