A remarkable number of Christmas carols and Christmas songs and Christmas hymns have a wistful, melancholic, plain-old sad side to them.
In the Bleak Midwinter and The Little Drummer Boy are both sung in the voice of one who knows poverty: What can I give him, poor as I am? and I am a poor boy, too – pa rum pum pum-pum.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas speaks of finitude and randomness: Through the years we all will be together…
…if the fates allow…
and of troubles which, achingly, beautifully, the singer hopes and longs will now be miles away.
And even We Need a Little Christmas from the musical Mame:
We need a little Christmas, right this very minute!
Words that are almost impossible to sing without putting on your Angela Lansbury voice, a number as toe-tapping and danceable a Christmas song there is, tells us:
I’ve grown a little leaner
Grown a little colder
Grown a little sadder
Grown a little older
I bet that we could think of still more examples.
What’s going on? Why are so many pages of the Christmas song book stained with tears?
Some of it probably has to do with the time of the year. These short days are taxing and it is easy to feel out of gas. Some of it probably flows out of the dissonance that shows up when, in a season when you are kind of expected or even required to be happy, you realise that you are not: if Christmas sits for you in the shadow of loss or grief or loneliness and the world around you appears to be full-time joy and friendship and merriment and Christmas cards filled with success and success and winning and winning, that’s hard. And some of it is probably due to just having time off: if you, like me, are the sort of person whose preferred drug is not so much booze as it is busyness, getting a break from work or projects or school simply allows you the time to be sad.
And some of it has to do with Christmas itself – not the contemporary holiday, but the ancient story of the birth of Jesus. Sorrow is woven right into this tale, it is right there beside the joy. Here is a family living in poverty – remember in the Gospel of Luke that, when the holy family goes to the temple to make a sacrifice to the Lord in Jesus’ name, the family buys a pair of turtledoves and two pigeons, the cheapest possible animals available, a marker that tells you that their wallets are close to empty. Here is a family living with the indignity and fear of occupation – Mary must give birth on the road because that Empire commands them to travel. And here is a family who, shortly after Jesus’ birth, become refugees, who flee to Egypt, because Empire’s violence is coming for them.
Those of you who have been hanging around church for a while will know that, three days after the Feast of Christmas, there comes another Feast. This is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, a day that keeps the memory all of the children under the age of two whom King Herod orders to be murdered in the hopes that Jesus will be among them.
The story of those murders, the story of what, beginning in the twentieth century, we would call a crime against humanity, is one that we probably ought to tell not just on December 28th but on this Sunday as well. Except, because of a curious choice made by the folks who framed the lectionary (i.e., the schedule of readings that we follow from one Sunday to the next), we just skip past it. Here is Matthew Chapter 2, Verses 13-15, in which Joseph is warned in a dream and flees with his family to Egypt. And then we pop ahead to Verse 19, which begins, “When Herod died,” and it is safe for the family to come home.
And they lived happily ever after! This is almost a Disney story.
Except missing from what we just read together are verses 16 through 18:
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.
The Magi, in art and in nativity sets, are often these jovial, kind, harmless figures, gift-wrapped boxes in their hands. But what this story in its fullness tells us is that they are also tragic figures, sorrow-filled figures. They choose to trust Herod, choose to trust the King, someone who ought to be trustworthy, with the amazing good news that the Messiah has been born. And in so doing, they unwittingly invite Herod’s violence into Jesus’ life and Joseph and Mary’s lives and into the lives of who knows how many innocent and unnamed children.
Children who, now, will never get to grow up.
So. I have some distressing news to share with you. Over the last number of weeks, you may have received warning notice from Grace letting you know that there is a scammer or, maybe, multiple scammers hopping onto email pretending to be Jeanne or me or a parishioner here at Grace. And I’m really sorry to let you know that no fewer than two parishioners have been defrauded of money by this scam. One parishioner was defrauded of about $300. More recently, a second parishioner was defrauded of $1300.
Now, I want to be clear. I have just transitioned from the murder of children to the stealing of money, and I want to emphasise that the two are not the moral equivalent of one another. Of course they are not. What I am arguing, I guess, is that thefts such as these are microcosms, small versions, of other, bigger kinds of violence. Violence such as Herod inflicts, violence such as we hear about today in synagogues and churches.
Because in both cases, the violence is against trust, against community. We come to church or synagogue or other places of worship because we trust that we are going to find healing, belonging, and meaning in these places, we trust that we are going to find goodness and love in them, we trust that we are going to find safety in them, we trust that we are going to find God in them. These are places, we reckon, where we are home, where we are allowed to let down our guards.
And when someone takes advantage of that trust and pretends to be a member of the community asking for help or, far worse, brings a gun or a knife a machete into the community, it feels like an especially big violation. And it demands the question: how shall we respond?
Is church too going to be place where we must be on guard at all times?
For some of our fellow people of faith, the answer is “yes.” As you likely know, a recent shooting at a church in Texas was stopped and who knows how many murders prevented because several church goers were armed and one of them was able to shoot and kill the perpetrator. This is the famous “good guy with a gun,” except in real life. Is the takeaway that we at Grace should do the same, that acolytes and choir members ought to have pistols under their robes and keep a machine gun stowed in the pulpit? Microcosmically, do the recent scams mean that the trust that is so much part of this good place is something that we ought to regard with scepticism and suspicion?
Maybe a sensible answer, a street-smart answer, would be “yes.” But that’s not the answer that I want to give. And if Jesus is telling the truth when, in Gethsemane he tells his disciple to put away the sword, when he pushes back when that the disciples want to engage in violence, when, even on the cross, he chooses to forgive, then I don’t think that it is the answer that Jesus wants us to give either.
Maybe it is naïve or foolish or reckless. But I believe that Jesus, the child laying in the manger even as the soldiers draw near, wants us to keep on trusting in goodness and love, keep on hoping for goodness and love, keep on working for goodness and love.
Because I think Jesus’ trust, Jesus’ trust in humanity in spite of everything, is built right into Christmas. Theologians will sometimes say of the incarnation, of the Kingdom, of the Gospel, that these things have an already and a not yet quality. The kingdom is already here, Jesus is already among us. The church is already the body of Christ. And yet silly power struggles and hurt feelings remain. And scams remain. And the worst kind of violence remains.
And in a way, the not yet makes the already even more amazing, Here is all of this brokenness. And here is Jesus, here is God, showing up anyway. That is the best news.
Already and not yet is the paradox built into his paradoxical time of year, a time of year in which we sing paradoxical songs: songs of joy and glad tidings and loneliness and grief. Songs of hope, that Jesus is here among all of the hurt and that Jesus is coming and that Jesus will change everything. That is hope that I need, for which I long.
For we’ve grown a little leaner
Grown a little colder
Grown a little sadder
Grown a little older
We need a little Christmas. Now.