Yesterday after I heard about the elementary school shooting (a phrase that should never have entered the language) in Newtown, Connecticut, I tweeted a link to Dylan Thomas’s poem “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London,” which is about the inadequacy and, often, the inappropriateness of words in the face of death, especially the death of a child. I hope that in the following comments I will not violate the spirit of his poem or dishonor the victims, that I will not “murder / the mankind of [their] going with a grave truth” (14-15).
One of the most striking things about this event is how close it happened to Christmas. A friend of mine mentioned last night that the children’s parents had probably already bought their presents. This certainly makes what happened all the more horrible, but we shouldn’t be shocked that someone could do something like this during the holiday season. Sometimes we (that is, Western civilization in general) think that people magically become more charitable or at least more “decent” at Christmastime. Charles Dickens, in A Christmas Carol, played a large role in creating this misconception. In the story, it is the spirit (literally) of Christmas itself that brings about an unforeseen, quick, and complete transformation in Scrooge. Though I love A Christmas Carol, I think Dickens is wrong–which is not something I say very often, so this is important.
Christmas does not make us better people. Christ does. This is called sanctification, and it takes a long time and can be difficult. The statistics we hear every year about depression at Christmas, and now yesterday’s shooting, are evidence that the month of December has no special power to transform lives. Only the one whose birth we celebrate at Christmas can do this.
I’m not trying to be cynical. If our favorite things about Christmas–the music, the decorations, the gift-giving–prompt those of us who are Christians to act like what we are being transformed into–the image of Christ–so much the better. And even better if our celebration of Christmas becomes an act of witness-bearing, to give those who do not yet know Christ a glimpse of what the world might look like if all people were restored to what we were created to be, and still have the potential to be: God’s children. But the music, the decorations, the gifts are only symbols. Symbols are powerful, but they can’t do what Christ can.
Another mistake we make at Christmas is to forget that Christ has promised a second Advent. The first time Jesus came, the time we celebrate at Christmas, he didn’t fix everything that was wrong with the world. Of course, he changed everything; he gave us a way back to God. But the world is still broken. Children still die.
This Christmas, I hope you remember that Christ has promised to come again and fulfill the rest of the Messianic prophecies we read at this time of year. Someday he will come and set the world right. There won’t be any more elementary school shootings. There won’t be any death at all. And “of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end” (Isaiah 9:7).