• The innocents
    December 24,2012

    At the center of the Christmas story is a child, and a star leading three travelers to the child and his family. In the darkness and cold there is light. As in other faith traditions, the light is a sign of life.

    But the Christmas story is not as simple as that. It also tells of the flight of Jesus’ family into Egypt and the order given by King Herod that all children under two years of age be slaughtered.

    The joy of childbirth, the wondrous message of angels, adoration by kings from the east — all are bound together in the same story with hideous bloodshed. Out of this mixture of human experience comes one of the holiest stories in the Western tradition.

    As Christmas approaches less than two weeks after the slaughter of the innocents in Newtown, Conn., it is worth contemplating the complexity of the human story. We have become accustomed to hearing of the slaughter by Herod and understand that its meaning is bound up with the story of redemption that has Jesus at its center. But a full appreciation of the Christmas story requires us to imagine the terror experienced 2,000 years ago with the arrival of soldiers, swords in hand, at the doorstep.

    It is not so easy to ascribe meaning to the recent horrible events. That sort of terror is laced into human history. We have confronted another instance of it. It is out of that darkness that faith and love must shine.

    We are in the midst of the holiday season. We have become accustomed to the buying frenzy surrounding Christmas, abetted by journalists who have conspired to make an unholy big deal about Black Friday, a trumped-up event designed to goad customers into a fury of consumerism. There is even an e-version of Black Friday that supposedly takes place the following Monday, as if the American people are little more than sheep.

    The consumer trappings of Christmas have become so blatant, so pervasive, one nurtures the hope that people will be able to look beyond the materialism. It may be unpatriotic to say so. Seventy percent of the nation’s economic activity, so we are told, involves consumer spending, and a large portion of that occurs at Christmas. Do we want to keep the engine of commerce humming? Then the message is: Buy.

    But human beings exist at many different levels. We may be preoccupied with the need to buy a crock pot for Aunt Celia, but at a different level, we know the holiday at the center of the celebration is about something else.

    The calendar of religious observance for most faiths reminds us of timeless truths that are repeated each year because they are worth hearing again and again. We hear the Christmas story as children, and then later as adults, and it means different things each time.

    If we are sensitive this year to the story of the innocents, it is because of what the world has shown us about life. It is a message that we know children will learn eventually — about the cruelty of life and death. For children, we are more concerned with conveying the story of birth and a family’s love and the solidarity of common shepherds and foreign visitors with the family of an ordinary carpenter. We enhance the wonder with an overlay of stories about Santa and the joy of gift giving. For a child the miracle of Christmas is the miracle of love and life.

    He or she will learn harder lessons later, except that this year, in Connecticut, that lesson has been thrust upon the children of one town with particular ruthlessness. President Obama wanted to remind the people of Newtown that they are in the thoughts of all Americans. As we imbibe the joy of the season this year, it is worth keeping in mind those for whom the joy has been stolen. They cannot be forgotten.

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