By the Rev. Eric Long
It was particularly difficult to be a priest during Christmas in 2012. It was dreadfully tough to be a parent that holiday too. Being both was almost overwhelming.
I had never heard of Sandy Hook Elementary before December 14 of that year. Like thousands of other schools, it simply existed, nameless, because after all, why would I ever need to know that school’s name? Yet on that day, its anonymity died, along with far more precious things.
Back then, I walked to pick my girls up from school each day, unless it was Shelley’s turn. Generally, pick-up was a one-parent job, mom or dad, never both, whoever could fit it in or just lost the coin toss. But not that Friday. That Friday every mom and dad went to pick-up: Shelley and I, and a multitude of others. We all walked together with knowing looks and shaking heads, red eyes and anguished concern that hung thick in the air like some funeral dirge no one could have ever imagined needing to sing. We walked without our faces buried in phones for once, but rather, looking up in expectation of our children coming home from school in a world where, without warning, all children do not.
We forced smiles for the sake of Abigail and Madalene that Christmas, and our deceits grew far larger than normal. That year it wasn’t only that reindeer could fly, or Santa really could do all that in one night. No, that year we also said that monsters weren’t real, even though we now knew they sometimes came. And we pulled it off. Abigail and Madalene never knew a thing – a hiatus for them from a new reality in which they had unknowingly come to live.
The people at my church knew the truth though. As they painfully sang “Joy to the World,” they knew, and looked at me with eyes that begged to know if that story still held, or if it was just another fantasy we tell, to hide away from a world sometimes just too sad to bear. To be honest, that Christmas I wondered a bit too, for how could a world into which God would come, be the same world where that could come too?
Jesus was born into the real world, not a Renaissance painting. Jesus’ world had it all: senseless violence, political strife, and even another true story about the slaughter of innocents, itself too dreadful to tell. Yet that was the world God came to visit, rather than some idealized version of it, as pretty as it is on Christmas cards. The world into which Jesus was born is one that can know fathomless sorrow, with depths unknown, and yet into which God willingly dove headfirst.
It is in this world’s sorrows, and ours in it, that Christmas shows its hand, disclosing whether it was just bluffing all along, or not. In this world — the real world, our world — we see how much we need the Jesus who comes… into our hurts and pains, and into the hurts and pains of people about whom we’ve never heard, until we hear more of them than our hearts can take… into sorrows so deep that only God could possibly fill them up. And so God did. And so God does.
That is what I told my parishioners gathered that Christmas Eve night, singing songs they hoped still held. It’s what I proclaimed that night and have never stopped proclaiming since — and never will: our faith is a load-bearing wall. It can endure the worst, because it says God so loved the world, even as it really is, that he gave his only son, so that this real world can be whole in a way no idealized world ever could.
Some stories we tell because they are fun even though we know they aren’t true. Some stories are too true to bear. Some stories are so true and joyous all at once that they have the power to change every other story because they matter just that much.
Christmas is such a story. A story that heals all others. A story of the God who visited the stories of a world such as ours.
Christmas matters that much.