Monday, December 17, 2012

Faith Works 12-22-12

Faith Works 12-22-12

Jeff Gill

Slaughter and the sorrowful season




No one wants to mourn at Christmastime.


No one wants to go to a funeral during Advent, least of all for a child.


Nobody is interested in sad songs and weeping while the carols are playing and laughter is in the air. Nobody, that is, except for those who must.


No death seems well-timed, really, and to say this is the right or the wrong month or week is a sort of non sequitur, a statement without meaning. Death comes as it may, and we respond in faith and hope according to the measure given to us.


A massacre, a mass killing during December cannot but feel particularly heinous, even though we know it would be just as appalling in April, or May. The mix of children's excitement over gifts and surprises, combined with our helpless imaginings of events like those just past in Connecticut, creates a nauseating brew of anger and despair in the pit of our collective stomach.


That feeling, though, has a place in the Christmas story. It always has. We just tend to gloss over or skip past it, as we try to keep the "joy of Christmas" alive. Death, instead, keeps creeping back into the story.


Just after the commemoration of the birth of Christ, marked on Dec. 25th, is the liturgical feast of what are called "the Holy Innocents" on Dec. 28th. They remind us of the passage in Matthew's gospel account after the Magi, or "wise men" had met with deceitful, fearful Herod and told him of a Great King who is to be born.


Herod said he wanted to meet this infant king, and after getting enough information to go on, he sent his soldiers to kill every male child under two, just to be on the safe side.


Just to be on the safe side.


The story reminds us of Pharaoh, in the beginning of the book of Exodus, when the death of the firstborn of the Hebrew sons is commanded, leading to little Moses being set adrift in the Nile in a basket. The anguish of the mothers is seen with skillful indirectness when Cecil B. DeMille shows an Egyptian soldier wiping blood off his sword with a swaddling cloth, as the mother sits stunned into silence nearby.


Silence is one response we can offer, and it is better than some words that have been shared in recent days. Sorrow can be expressed wordlessly, or in very few. And there are tears.


But from tears, there are so very often stories. The stories that explain why we grieve, what we will miss, how we are painfully remembering what we've lost right now. And the stories unfold, and connect, and carry forward, and next thing you know, you're laughing.


It's not that you stop crying, but you laugh all the same, tears changing course as your face creases into a smile.


Stories have a way of giving birth to the next story, and the next, and given time you find everyone telling stories, and while the tears are never entirely gone, they aren't the whole story.


So it is with the Christmas story. There's a heritage in that long-ago act of terror by Pharaoh in Egypt, and the present threat of Herod's uneasy security and ruthless ambition . . . and the shadow of Roman crucifixion leaning across occupied Judea.


You do no justice to the story by sweeping those realities aside. But you also talk about that stubborn donkey on the road up from Jericho, the motley crew of shepherds you met on the last, endless trudge from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, and the marvel of gifts from foreign potentates who came bearing not only precious goods, but a whispered warning with angelic emphasis.


The incidents behind you haunt your delight in the baby born in a stable, but you don't let them keep you from recounting the traverse of the Sinai, that ferryman's outburst as you crossed the Nile, and even – glancing around at your listeners to gauge their trustworthiness – the dream sent from Heaven that led you to return home.


Tears may not make much of a gift at Christmas, nor do they stay long on the hearthstones, but the shedding of them has a place in the story, and always has. May your Christmas celebration tell stories, one to another, that include those who mourn, those who rejoice, those who wander, and those who have found their way home.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in central Ohio; tell him about your journey home for Christmas at or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

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