I recently wrote a post that began I have long believed that life holds more sadness than joy. I often write posts quickly, with minimal editing, in response to a stimulus that moves me. Posts may reflect just one side of an issue, something that is compelling to me in the moment. However, I stick by my sentiment; when I look at the world, I see sorrow and loneliness, and joy often hides from my sight.
A close friend who knows me well questioned this. She knows me as a happy person, and she knows my faith in God. Though she agreed that happiness was fleeting, she wrote, “joy is deep-seated and comes from God; therefore, even in the most difficult times, I have felt joy.”
After the massacre of schoolchildren last Friday in Newtown, CT, she sent me a link to a compelling and thoughtful sermon preached by Pastor J. Barrett Lee on Sunday’s Epistle lesson: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice … and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” She wondered what I thought of that, as she was still processing her own thoughts.
The peace of God? That’s what we long for now. We search for some new perspective that brings peace. But joy? Rejoicing? How?
Lee says he finds joy in the experience of harmony in the universe –easy joy (like Bonhoffer’s cheap grace, without investment, without cost), a free gift found in a perfect sonnet or the Milky Way or the laugh of a child, your child. But he also claims another side to joy, a dark side. This is joy despite the violence, joy in defiance of the violence, angry joy. This joy springs from a recognition of sin and an understanding that this is not the way things are meant to be. From the roots of this joy, the proper response to the slaughter of children is outrage. And as long as one soul feels that outrage, he says there is still hope for all. I get it; but I can’t call that joy.
When I think of Christmas, I often picture a sentimental version: twinkling lights, fresh snow, families gathered … and a baby in a manger. God come to earth as a child himself. But all I could think on Friday was that God in the world today is not God the infant but God the crucified. Have mercy.
The scream Lee refers to in his sermon as a scream of joy (albeit from the dark side of joy) for me is a scream of need, of emptiness, of absence, of a hidden God, of harmony in the universe now shattered and irreparable — the same scream that came from my soul last Friday as I drove in my car and stared at my computer and raged at the news.
Tony Woodlief, in Hell and Christmas, suggests to me that we are born for weeping. As we bury twenty first graders this week, he asks, “how does the earth receive them all and not cry out?”
For me it all comes together in Woodlief’s words: “Whether it’s truth or myth to you, the story of a baby born for slaughter ought to give pause. The truth or myth of man is that his heart has turned black, and the blood of innocents is spilled as a consequence.”
Ross Douthat, in the New York Times, explains that myrrh was used to prepare bodies for the grave, the same myrrh that the Magi carried to the holy child. He adds, “the cross looms behind the stable – the shadow of violence, agony and death.” Through illustrations from the Brothers Karamazov, he reminds us of the question Dostoyevsky raises: is the price of our free will too high? Is the slaughter of innocents, the death of twenty first-graders in an idyllic New England town, too high a price to pay for freedom, even if the end of freedom is grace? Is even heaven worth the price?
The answer seems to be this: that the road is rough and the day full of suffering, and that the baby born for slaughter, whether myth or truth, walks with us. God with us: Immanuel. And for now, that’s all we have.