Years ago when my husband and I were experiencing infertility, we had a couple of failed adoptions that happened two years in a row on December 22. In those years, the phrase “Christmas is for the children” especially grated. And in my heightened awareness, I made a key observation:
The only children in the Christmas story other than the newborn king are the male infants and toddlers whom the government slaughtered.
Matthew describes that event this way: “Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more” (Matt. 2:16–18).
Even after Jesus arrived in the first Advent, people in power were so depraved that they would kill toddlers and babies, and bereaved parents had to put up and shut up.
But wait—didn’t the angels say they had good news for all the people?
Yes. But that rose of good news had not (and has not) fully bloomed. And until it reaches its full flower, we feel the disconnect between those good tidings of joy and actual shalom on earth.
Is it any wonder that so many mourn during Advent? I mean, have you ever seen this verse on a Christmas card?
Jesus said: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three (Luke 12:51–52).
The angels did bring great tidings of great joy. But remember what Judas thought that meant? He assumed Messiah was going to storm the political center, overthrow the toddler-murdering family in power, and set up his government of world peace. Yet in his first Advent, Jesus set out to bring a different kind of peace. And consequently, Judas was so disillusioned that he sold out our Lord for thirty pieces of silver.
The reality is that we still “mourn in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear…” And we can be disillusioned, too, if we miss the full picture.
Despite the fact that Christmastide in the here-and-now might whisper to us of the world to come—through time with loving families, believers worshipping, ham and turkey and wassail, traveling for a long-awaited hug, and/or Christmas morning with eyes aglow—we also mourn the empty place(s) at the table, the family dysfunction, the unresolved childhood trauma, the depressed bank accounts, the full hospitals, the government shutdowns, war, persecution of our brothers and sisters… . And if that weren’t enough, January follows—the peak month for depression!
I’m not trying to make it worse by stating the obvious. I simply want to remind us that the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany are a part of the church year when we remind ourselves that God saw our greatest need. And that need was not political. It was not even physical health. Or family unity. Our greatest need of all was to be reconciled to God. And that is where God started. He did not send an email to meet that need. Or even an emissary. God’s own self came in the form of a human baby, the second person of the Godhead veiled in flesh. And that child was the king of the Jews, despite Herod’s best effort to usurp the throne of David. And that child was king of the Gentiles, acknowledged by magi who followed His star.
The “children of Christmas” remind us that this world is still desperately broken, despite the first Advent. And in fact, the arrival of those who came to worship the child set in motion horrific events for those children, even as today faith in Christ divides households across the world. As we remember the arrival of those bearing gold, frankincense, and myrrh, we live in the “already, but not yet.” We are offered peace with God—praise God! But agony is still the norm, not the exception. Because the first Advent is not the whole story.
So we wait in lonely exile, we pray the lament psalms, and we acknowledge all the brokenness. But we do not wait as those who have no hope. We remember that a new cry will one day rise up from Ramah. And we sing the words of Edmund Sears:
For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever-circling years
Shall come the time foretold,
When the new heaven and earth shall own
The Prince of Peace, their King,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.
(Image: Slaughter of the Innocents, Duomo Siena)