Since the world didn’t explode, many of us celebrated the most recognized holiday in human history, Christmas. We toiled over lists, waited in long shopping lines, and exchanged both gifts and pleasantries. I am certain that holiday cheer abounded, and many still bask in the afterglow of the season.
If it was to have been the end of the world, this probably wasn’t the worst way to go. Maybe the Earth didn’t explode or get vaporized by an on-coming comet; although maybe, as T.S. Eliot wrote, the world for some did end this month, “not with a bang… but a whimper.”
We’ve experienced a terrible tragedy this Christmas season, reminiscent of Herod’s assault on the children of Bethlehem after the birth of Jesus; a horror described by the prophet Jeremiah as “a weeping that refuses all comfort.” I will resist any kind of temptation to make sense of our current tragedy in Newtown because if such an event can appear in the first Christmas—at the very birthplace of the Messiah— then I see no reason to believe we are going to be immune to suffering.
In our Christmas story, a tragedy unfolded at just the same time as God determined to become a co-sufferer with all human beings through Jesus. The inclusion of Herod’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem in our sacred texts is a stark reminder that some not only miss the reason for the season, but revel in its shadow. Jesus would escape this particular massacre by moving to Egypt, but the course of his life would in fact take him to the torture of the cross. Suffering surrounds our Christian story at nearly the beginning and nearly the end of Jesus’ life.
Sigmund Freud once accused Christianity of being a “wish-fulfillment” religion. To paraphrase his main points: 1) in God, Christians create the loving father they always wanted, and 2) the heaven they teach is really only the pain-free life they always imagined. He argued that Christians believe these things because we desperately wish them to be true.
One wonders how such an intelligent man could so terribly misread the Gospels. The true Gospel message is not something anyone would necessarily wish for; it is many ways the exact opposite. It is a message that takes us not over, not under, or around a tragedy, but through it. Jesus’ cry from the cross “My God, why have you abandoned me!” is not a theological answer to the problem of evil; it is a cry of anguish. He offers this cry publicly and sincerely because it is the path He knows that we also take; a path not around the pain of life… but through it.
In other ways however, maybe Freud was right… not about the Gospels, but about us. We’ve made Christmas exactly the opposite of its original intent as many lament this time of year. We have belief figured out and have presented it to the world in six, or nine, or 14 easy steps, all with soothing, poetic alliteration in sermon points. Even in the midst of this tragedy, some believers toss out easy answers and glib responses that do little more than compound the suffering. Some believers want an Easy Street—and nothing is easier than a bag full of answers. Freud had at least part of this pegged pretty well.
In the wake of this tragedy, some of us grew dejected and turned to thoughts of ancient Mayan endings for planet Earth. Maybe in our darkest despair, some of us even secretly hoped that the world would end so that the agony of despondent mothers having lost their children might be over too. We wanted the pain of this world to go away.
For many in our country, this tragedy feels like the end of the world as we once knew it. Innocence has been shattered and suffering multiplied beyond measure. As a Christian, I turned loose of my hold on an innocent world with Christ’s crucifixion. He bore the pain of cruelty and sin, then asks us take up our own cross and follow Him. Call that whatever you want, but this path is anything but wish fulfillment.
For years, I have accepted the cross but still averted my eyes because the pain of it just seems too much. I’ve been bitter about suffering in the world, even angry with God for it. Most of us will sometimes reach a point where we raise our fists to God and demand answers to the problems of evil and suffering… but it’s only the pure in heart that ever really see Him in the crux of pain. The rest are merely shadow boxers, and I certainly know what that feels like.
I pass through the “valley of the shadow of death” holding only a promise; and at the end of my innocence, His love remains. Truthfully, it is all that I need even though sometimes I forget. Jesus, our co-sufferer, offers to walk with us in our pain. And in my sorrow this season, there’s something more than a whimper I can find in His love. To get there, I have to pass through tragedy and learn to trust. I am broken by this tragedy in Newtown in my deepest places. Trusting when I hurt is not always easy for me, so I have been praying a prayer recorded in Mark’s gospel—it is a prayer Jesus deeply respected.
It says, “Lord I believe, but help me in my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24)
David Allred is the lead pastor of High Places Community Church, 123 Randolph Road in Oak Ridge, working alongside founding pastor Martin Fischer. High Places owns and operates the historic Grove Theater, which is also home to numerous arts organizations that share a vision for improving quality of life in Oak Ridge. For more information, see http://highplaceschurch.com.