But as horrific as the events of this past Friday are, they are hardly the most common acts of violence in this world. Children are far more likely to die at the hands of abusive family members. I know this because in the eight years I have been a hospital chaplain, I have stood over twice as many dead children who were shaken or beaten or neglected as were killed in the massacre last week. That doesn’t include the children I’ve seen killed by car accidents, or cancer, or asthma attacks, or SIDS.
You want to hear a soul-killing confession? The only people I’ve ever baptized have been dead children.
Of course, being a hospital chaplain isn’t all about dead children. There are plenty of dead adults, too. Some of them I never knew; some of them I got to know as they battled their terminal illness; some of them I shared the sacred privilege of being present with them as they breathed their last and life slipped away. I work in a place where broken and dying people gather without the comforting pretense of health and strength. As you may suspect, broken and dying people are everywhere: the grocery store, your church, your workplace, the chair you’re sitting in. But in the hospital, there’s no hiding it. So as grieved as I am over what happened in Connecticut this past week, I am not an unfamiliar witness to tragedy and loss and suffering. So the way that you have felt watching the news of this awful tragedy, I feel a little bit of that every day.
I remember one lonely night several years ago, sitting with a man about my age whose father had just died unexpectedly of a heart attack. It was after midnight, and we were sitting in an empty room waiting for his mother to arrive to hear the news. We sat silently together until he suddenly said, “You have a really shitty job. How did you get stuck with this?”
What I wanted to say, but didn’t, was: “I once sat where you’re sitting now. Because we all get stuck with this, and we shouldn’t have to be alone in it.”
So here we are in third week of Advent, having passed Gaudete Sunday. The Sunday of Joy. I don’t know about you, but I had a hard time feeling joyful this Sunday. I have a hard time feeling joyful kind of all the time, but with the news blaring details about Bushmaster rifles and multiple fatal wounds and no motives, it just felt wrong to have Christmas. Christmas songs like “Holly Jolly Christmas” and “Feliz Navidad” are a little offensive all the time, but this weekend they seemed downright obscene to me. How can I be joyful when twenty children are dead? When children all over the world are dying because of abuse, terrorism, violence, sickness, hunger, and homelessness? How the hell can I be joyful?
Well, there’s this:
This is what the birth of the Christ-child means. Jesus was not born into a comfortable, privileged or safe environment. He was born a persecuted ethnic minority in a country that was forcefully occupied by a tyrannical regime. And let us not forget that the birth of the Messiah prompted King Herod to massacre every newborn child in the country, a massacre the baby Jesus survived only because his parents took him to a different country. The Christ-child was born into the midst of suffering and destruction that would be hard for many Americans to even imagine. But that is the radical, existence-altering power of true joy. No matter how thick the spilled blood flows, God is at work. Is it any wonder that Simeon and Anna rejoiced when they saw the tiny Messiah up close? And did those nearby consider them crazy or out of touch? Probably.
No matter how dark the world gets – and we have all been reminded that it gets very, very dark – there is still something to rejoice. I don’t mean some “count-your-blessings” sort of cliché. I mean that there is a cosmic joy so deep and powerful that nothing can extinguish it. If it only existed in times of comfort and prosperity, it would be meaningless. If Jesus had been born into a royal family, how would that have been impressive? If Jesus had had access to Twitter and Facebook, who would be impressed to see his message endure? As Paul writes, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:27-28, NRSV).
If God chose foolishness to shame wisdom, weakness to shame strength, lowliness to shame power, then God chose joy to shame misery. There is much misery in the world, I know. All the more work for us to do. When we sit with those who are lonely and suffering, when we can say to one another, “Yes, this is a shitty, broken world – but we are not alone and we will not lose heart nor will we let anguish overcome our hoping against hope that there is something good in which we trust.” Joy means celebrating that we have a higher standard for our lives that is not ever compromised.
We can’t all feel joyful all the time. It would be cruel to expect the bereaved parents, teachers, and children of Sandy Hook Elementary to feel joy this Christmas. I think it would be the humane thing to do to exempt the community of Newtown from the pressures of feeling joyful this Christmas, or indeed the many Christmases still to come. When we are grieving, when we are hurting, when we are suffering, it is fine to expect that we will not feel joyful. But don’t rule it out. I can only speak for myself, but I know joy has surprised me in the darkest pits of grief. Because joy is deeper than our circumstances and stronger than what happens to us, it will always find a way, even if only a small glimmer in the shadows. Joy is a defiant stance to take against the bleak realities of gloom, which means that sometimes joy is angry or sorrowful or frightened. But joy is not shamed by despair; to the contrary, despair is shamed by joy.
It’s a fucked-up world. It’s full of pain and suffering and injustice and violence. But it’s the same world that is full of kittens and puppies, sunshine and birdsong, hugs and kisses, and curly-headed children twanging “Happy Birthday” to the baby Jesus. It is the same world into which Christ was born, the same world God so loves. I do not care how many psychotic shooters there are in this world. I do not care how many terrorists, how many abusers, how many cancer cells, how many hurricanes, how many random moments of casual destruction and human failure. Our joy will not be shamed.