One of my favorite carols, for sheer beauty of sound, is the Coventry Carol. But you don’t often hear it on the radio this time of year. Not too surprising, I guess–the topic is the Massacre of the Innocents (Matt 2:13-18). Dead children don’t really seem to go with the season of hope and the holiday of merriment.
But there they were when I looked at the news today. In Newport, CT, innocents have lost their lives during a shooting at, of all places, an elementary school.
I can’t help but remember the Nickel Mines shooting from a couple of years ago, when a gunman walked into an Amish schoolhouse and opened fire. There have been many, too many school shootings since Nickel Mines, but none that I can remember have happened to children as young as this–none has reminded me so much of the defenselessness, voicelessness, and innocence so ruthlessly exterminated.
I remember feeling as though there was nothing redeemable in the Nickel Mines shooting except, maybe, the impetus to promise ourselves that such a thing would never happen again; that children would be safe; that as their protectors, we could and would succeed if only we put enough effort into it. But then along comes something like Sandy Hook. All over again we are overwhelmed. Terrible evil is loose in the world, and it seems like God has forsaken us. How else could such terrible things happen?
Lully lullay, thou little tiny child. Bye bye, lully lullay.
A lullaby bears the story of the slaughter of all the boy children of Bethlehem two years old or younger just after Jesus’ birth. How could it be possible that just after God has come into the world, wrapped in human flesh and swaddling clothes, the event is marked not only by gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but by the spilling of the blood of infants? Why couldn’t God have done something? How could God have let this happen? How dare Matthew play it off as part of God’s great plan by referring back to Jeremiah?
“A sound is heard in Ramah,
a sound of crying in bitter grief.
It is the sound of Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted, because her children are gone.”
I don’t have answers to any of this. I have only Rachel’s bitter grief for these terrible losses. I have only weeping for a world in which Jesus is everywhere, and yet in Egyptian exile; in which the kingdom is now, and not yet. I have only the Advent assurance, when blackness presses in, that a light shines in the darkness, and no matter how deep the night, nor how the fire flickers, the darkness shall not overcome the Christ-light.
Such violence as today has witnessed makes no sense to me, and I do not believe that it makes sense to God, either. But I know that somehow, God has accounted for sin like this, that somewhere in the Divine there is a home for this senseless tragedy and for bitter grief, that this too God can take and somehow redeem. Is this not the God who hung on a cross, and by means–not in spite of–a violent death, brought salvation to humanity? If this is so, then God is here. God is in the classrooms of Sandy Hook, walking the hallways, sustaining the emergency workers, remaining with parents in their confusion and their desperation, comforting the children who cannot understand, attending the loved one of the person who did such a terrible thing. God was in the streets of Bethlehem when infant blood was spilled because of God’s Son, weeping with Rachel and refusing to be comforted.
We are singing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” in church these days, and do we ever mean it. We settle into our expectancy and God begins to seem like Godot, always keeping us waiting, leaving us to talk about the time when God will dry every tear from our eyes even as the reasons to weep keep pouring down. But God is here. It might not seem like it–“I am with you, even to the end of the age” were Jesus’ last words to his disciples before he did something that looked an awful lot like leaving them. But this is what we mean by “right now, and not yet.” This is what we mean by Advent, when we wait for what has already come, God-among-us, and wait for it to come again. It seems paradoxical–as paradoxical as a song about dead babies written for the Christmas season–but there it is, anyway.
- Then woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
- And ever mourn and sigh,
- For thy parting neither say nor sing,
- Bye, bye, lully, lullay.