Early morning, I’m sitting in the living room, lit only by the Christmas tree and the fireplace on a slow burn in the adjacent study. The kids are playing with their mom on the floor. Even the proverbial stockings are hung there.
An idyllic setting, one ten years ago I thought I would probably never be part of. Yet, as the events in Newtown, Connecticut, yesterday remind me, this is all so fragile, one disturbed individual with a gun away from being lost. The story only becomes more horrific with each new detail. I cry, and it only makes me hold the moments with my girls more closely.
It’s my oldest daughter who reminds me of this fragility every time we reread the Christmas story. Of course, she’s all about the baby Jesus: his need for shelter, for care and cuddling. Her favorite parts are how nobody would give Jesus a place to stay, and they finally had to use a trough for Jesus’ bed.
And she insists on the part of the story we often forget: the dark cloud that lurks behind the bright and morning star, the little detail we often tack on the end of the story as an addendum or overlook altogether. It’s the part about the evil man. Remember? Jesus parents have to whisk him away to another country to flee a plot on his life from Herod. Heart-pounding. Jesus, only a short while into his life on earth, is already a target of a paranoid thug bent on murder (which became the mass killings of Jewish babies). Welcome to Earth, Jesus. It’s enough to set one on course for a butt kicking anxiety disorder.
The killings of the innocent in Newtown show the monster King Herod has his offspring still today. We understandably cannot make any sense out of this heartless slaughter of 20 kindergarten kids. And the added horror, it happened as these kids were looking forward to Christmas.
It all defies our sense of any kind of goodness in the world. It also throws into question the presence of a merciful, just God. No tidy theological answer will do. For people trying to offer comfort to grieving parents, all they can do is be there with them.
This too is what Christmas offers. Yes, Herod will always be part of the story. And no, God did not prevent Herod or this killer yesterday from carrying out their evil intentions. But also, Christmas means God is not alien to our fears, aloof and distant. He willingly puts himself in the middle of every heart-rending contingency and threat on our lives. He experienced it all firsthand, so he's qualified to be there with us. Sometimes we need a child to remind us.
My three-year-old, Kaitlyn, urgently points up to the figurines in the nativity scene on the fireplace mantel. “Play, play, play!” She knows these are special somehow, brought out for the occasion, and she’s determined to know what all the fuss is about. I explain they’re just decorations, not toys for playing with. They aren’t safe either – ceramic with sharp edges - and we put a lot of work into getting them arranged right.
So, there they remain on the mantel: shepherds and wise men, some standing, others prostrate, the other usual props – sheep, cows, donkeys – and centre stage, of course, Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Together, they cram themselves under the stable roof, trying to stay out of the glare of Christmas lights.
Kaitlyn persists. I try to distract her from the crèche with her dolly, but she won’t have it. So, I open a Christmas story book, an oldie but goodie, and read with all the sincerity and passion I can muster. She isn’t impressed, all the while gazing up at the nativity scene. Finally, detecting futility, I shut the book and cave in. I go to the mantel, take down the Christmas entourage, and place them all on the carpet. With the scene finally at eye level, Kaitlyn quickly dives in head first.
I watch as she tells the story. Belly first on the floor, she holds the figurines up close and notices details that my familiarity with the story won’t allow me to see – the “mad faces” of the wise men and Joseph, the “happy faces” on Mary and the shepherds, and the wide-eyed expectancy of Jesus. “He wants to play.” Indeed, play they do, at Kaitlyn’s command. Mary sidles up to one of the shepherds and asks him to marry her, apparently unhappy with her current arrangement. One wise man offers his present to Joseph to cheer him up. Another farts and the sheep are scattered (well yeah, all those matzah balls and other strange food). The sheep and donkey go to eat cookies with the baby Jesus. Then they all go off to the playground for a romp on the slides and swings.
It slowly sinks in to my dull December brain, conditioned by rote repetition over the years, that this is the way Christmas is meant to be: up close and personal. I tend to keep God safe, at a distance. I prefer to simply observe, as the term implies, the Christmas “scene.” Far too often, I do not let God down from the mantel and look him in the eye. But isn’t that the point? I’ve found it increasingly difficult to engage like a child, wrap my hands around the story, and bring it to life with my own words, not just listen to someone else’s renditions in a book. But I must. I know my life depends on it, depends on this, the most difficult part: to let the characters into my world and get the baby Jesus mixed up in my dreams and adventures, my disappointments, and yes my betrayals, too.
If I can’t do this, what’s it all for anyway?
Kaitlyn may not have “got the story right,” but she is right on, much closer to Christmas than I am most days. She knows how to play with Jesus.