Christmas has in our culture become associated with all things "cheer," "goodwill," and "merriment": eggnog, Santa Clause, white elephant parties, sparkly sweaters, twinkly lights and tinsel galore. And for good reason. This is a holiday inspired by the coming of the world's salvation in the form of Jesus Christ.
Joy to the world indeed. The Incarnation is a reason to take heart, to be joyful, to feel good about life.
And yet the Advent season is also unmistakably somber. It has a dark side.
As Ross Douthat eloquently put it in today's New York Times:
...the Christmas story isn’t just the manger and the shepherds and the baby Jesus, meek and mild. The rage of Herod is there as well, and the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable — the shadow of violence, agony and death.
We celebrate the good news of God's original Advent: coming down to dwell with us and to redeem the world. But this is also a season of longing. We look to the second coming of the Messiah, waiting, waiting, waiting for the day when he will return to right all wrongs, bringing final justice and peace to this unjust and bloody planet. In the meantime we exist in a state of hopeful expectancy, struggling to make do in a broken, cruel, frail world that wearily waits for a new and glorious morn.
Advent is about a light that came into the darkness and spread outward to change the world. The classic Christmas Eve candlelight service captures that well. But the world is still a very dark place. And sometimes the lights seem so dim. It makes one wonder: When Christ came to earth and died on the cross, why didn't the light once-and-for-all overcome the darkness? Why is our world as dark (or darker, seemingly) as ever? What's the purpose in this?
Unthinkable tragedies like what happened at Sandyhook Elementary School unsettle us in part because they make us ask "problem of evil"-type questions of God: Why does He allow the innocent to suffer like this? How does this fit into His plan?
I can't begin to explain it, but one way I have tried to make sense of it in my own life is by thinking about all of creation as a massive piece of art: an epic story, canvas, or symphony, upon which God is the author and artist and conductor.
Art is not any good if it has no conflict or contrast. The best paintings are the ones that exhibit the most stunning usage of both light and dark. The best novels and movies are the ones that throw all manner of roadblocks, challenges and pains at the protagonist on his or her way to a cathartic resolution. The best symphonies are the ones that include sections of jubilation, sections of lament, and lots of dynamic contrast (soft, loud, pleasant, dissonant) on the forward movement toward grand conclusion.
In short: contrast is fundamental to beauty. The beauty of a sunrise depends on the dark night that precedes it. The sweet smell of nourished, fertile fields could not exist apart from the terrifying thunder and lightening that accompanies a rainstorm. Springtime must follow the long, cold winter.
I remember visiting Yellowstone National Park as a kid, a few years after the massive wildfires that ravaged nearly a third of the park. As we surveyed the devastated, sad landscapes of barren, burned-down forests, it was hard to believe the park rangers when they insisted that this would in the long run be a good thing for the park's ecosystem: that destructive fires were an essential part of the cycle of life, and that soon a whole new infant forest would emerge from the ashes. Sure enough, when I visited Yellowstone a decade later, new life is exactly what I saw. Beautifully green sprouts were shooting up amidst the charred remains of old stumps and branches.
It's easy to see how the beauty in nature is dependent on harsh, seemingly "fallen" realities. But it's harder to look at the slaughter of 6 and 7 year-olds in an elementary school classroom and see it as part of some big, beautiful work of art. It seems almost crass to think about it in those terms.
But I suspect that at the end of all things, when this story is long-concluded and a new creation has been birthed (see Rev.21 & 22), we will remember the story of this world as the greatest story ever told--a grand, epic battle between a very present evil and a very present grace; a narrative of darkness and despair that was always intertwined with love, beauty and hope; a story filled with many downs and many ups, many brilliant moments and many heartbreaking tragedies.
In the life of Christ we saw it all in microcosm: a joyous birth amidst Herod's unspeakable slaughter; Christ's miracle-working amidst throngs of poor, suffering and sick; wedding feasts where wine flowed; Roman torture where blood gushed. Birth and life and death. And then life again. Ups and downs. Lights and darks.
Oh what a magnificent story it is. And what a story it continues to be.