A year ago I was in an elementary school holding a toddler eager to watch her slightly bigger brother as he mouthed lyrics and tried to remember the proper hand motions for his Christmas play.
My wife was with me, and it did not escape us that this very moment was precious: the sound of children singing Christmas songs, the taste of homemade butter cookies someone had baked for the occasion, the cheerful faces of other parents we know and the sight of our tiny schoolboy wearing a halo-thing crafted from glitter, glue and construction paper. With two other kids in the same school—all healthy and happy with Christmas daydreams swirling in their minds—we acknowledged together that this was a precious moment in a precious life-stage.
At that exact moment, in another elementary school, little children had the Christmas daydreams swirling in their precious minds interrupted by gunshots. Twenty of them did not wake up on Christmas morning to unwrap the gifts their mothers and fathers had stashed into attics and closets. They were suddenly gone. Brutally, viciously gone.
The media coverage had been continuous. But no microphones were there to record the silence in those homes when, on December 25th, the bare feet of those 20 precious little children did not slap the floorspace between bed and tree.
Having moved to the United Kingdom with our family a few years ago, my wife and I decided to withhold the news of this tragic incident from our four children, some of whom wear the same shoe size and the same size of fleece pajamas as those kids in Newtown, Conn. But then one of my son’s schoolmates begged him never to move back to America.
“Why not?” my son asked.
“Because they shoot kids in school there.”
America: a faraway land where people with guns walk into schools and shoot kids—this was the impression left on my son’s British friends from what happened in Sandy Hook.
I am still not sure what to say to this childlike impression of my homeland. I am also not sure what to say as a Christian about the shooting spree in Newtown.
Then again, writing something punchy and uplifting is not the appropriate response to such a disaster. I can easily imagine the weight and size of those unsuspecting children, how they would have felt in the arms of their dads. I have a good idea as to which shows they had watched before and after school. I know what sort of toys they probably played with because the same toys are probably lying all over the floors in my own home. And I could take a good guess as to what the parents had wrapped in cheery, glossy paper in those attics and closets.
What I do not know is the soul-eviscerating pain of seeing their made-up and undisturbed beds on a Christmas morning.
Though the massacre that day interrupted what we normally think of as the “holiday spirit,” the pain and grief of death and violence is not out of place in the church’s understanding of Advent. The celebration of Advent is not just celebratory.
For Christians, Advent is marked with angst as well as relief.
This Advent angst is expressed through brokenhearted waiting, hoping and leaning forward in the midst of darkness. We do not just celebrate that Someone has come. We lunge with the last shreds of strength toward a distant light (often imperceptible) in the hope that the glorious Someone is coming again, coming to make things right, coming with a new age in which children play over adders’ nests—and play without the crack and smoke of gunfire.
Though we rejoice at the first coming of Christ, we also weep with mothers in Newtown—and with mothers in Bethlehem who also lost sons to armed men. The spiritual practices of Advent are waiting and expecting. Waiting, because a sin-induced dysfunction has bled into every fiber of our hearts and our world. We are waiting because we know just enough about our God to expect that He will appear on the horizon bringing a definitive reconfiguration of all things.
He came once. Surely, He will come again.
That is why we rejoice somehow through sobs, why we do this unbelievable act of mustering just enough faith against all the odds and splutter out some expression of joy even when the tears sting like hell. This is not the joy of trite sentimentality, the joy of a vapid theology that says things like “God just needed some more little angels” (yes, this was said). This is a raw, hard-fought, impossible joy that belongs to another realm and erupts out of the pain at the prospect of hearing something like, “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Revelation 21:5).
There is and there has always been a dark side of Christmas. Pain and death are intrinsic to the biblical Advent stories. A scandal in Nazareth: the betrothed is pregnant. A reminder of political oppression: we have to register for the census. A mother in labor without a bed: sorry, there is no room in the inn. And worst of all, the sound of soldiers bearing swords and entering homes: A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation. Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more. (Matthew 2:18. Jeremiah 31:15).
We are waiting for you Lord. You came once. Come again. Soon.
An earlier version of this article appeared at the England-based Big Bible Blog.
Andrew Byers serves as chaplain at St. Mary's College, Durham. He is the author of TheoMedia: The Media of God and the Digital Age and Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint. He blogs at hopefulrealism.com.