Nativity scenes in Newtown

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It’s not that there was anything wrong with the manger scene, lit up against the night sky, with its larger-than-life shepherds and angels and animals sitting on the hill. The whole crew of usuals was there, even the wisemen, who technically shouldn’t be on the scene for another year or two. The artwork had a slight “animated feature” vibe to it, but overall it was nice.

Too nice.

I couldn’t help wonder how that cartoon manger with its cartoon baby Jesus had anything relevant to say to Newtown, CT.

***

Yesterday, The Onion­ – a satirical, faux-news website – posted an article about the shootings in Newtown with the headline “F— Everything, Nation Reports”. It was a sad, profound, bleak look at how most of us felt when we saw the news. Through fake quotes from fake news sources, the article might have captured the moment, and our hollow attempt to understand it, better than anything else I read. As one of the fake quotes put it: “good God, if this is what the world is becoming, then how about we just pack it in and f-ing give up, because this is no way to live.”

The news broke while I was listening to a sports talk radio show, and it was sadly, strangely fascinating hearing the host on-air realize all the stuff he’d planned for that day – the interviews with overpaid athletes, and funny bits about absurd news stories, and rants from callers – just didn’t matter anymore.  Because if this is what the world is becoming, what’s the point?

I think this is what most people felt when hearing the news … as though most of our goals and plans and to-do lists for the day were meaningless, because in a world where things like this can happen how does my Christmas shopping list matter?

Of course we scrambled to make sense of it – what was the shooter’s home life? Was he mentally ill? Doesn’t this just prove how badly we need to outlaw guns? – because if we could come with an encapsulating explanation, then we could feel safe that this act can be understood, diagnosed, and kept from happening again.

***

What bothers me about most manger scenes is how nostalgic they are. The Nativity Scene falls in the same category as roasting chestnuts, rosy-cheeked Santa Claus, & every other Norman Rockwell icon ever drawn. I think nostalgia in general is dangerous. Nostalgia fools us into believing there was this time in the past that was perfect, or near perfect, or at least better than now, and if we could just recreate that time period then everything would be better.

But that time never existed. Ever. Not even when Jesus was born.

When John describes the birth of Jesus in John 1 he says a light shone into the darkness, but the darkness couldn’t either overcome it, or understand it, depending on the translation. In either case though the birth of Jesus is the birth of conflict, of light against an oppressive darkness. In they symbolism-heavy book of Revelation Jesus is born, and a dragon emerges from the sea and tries to devour him.

Depending on who you ask, this dragon could either be “the Satan” – literally the accuser, the oppressive force of evil who roams this world like a devouring lion – or the Roman Empire/King Herod who at different times would try to kill Jesus. And so the birth of Jesus, far from nostalgic and peaceful, is a declaration of war against the spiritual chaos and evil of this world, and the people who are its puppets.

I don’t blame Nativity Scenes for not capturing this part of the story – I’m not sure what they’d look like if it tried, but I doubt it would help matters.

***

As much as I respect the honesty of that article in The Onion, it makes me sad to think that the final word on the matter is despair, although I have the feeling the actual final word will be an extended political fight over gun laws. That sort of false hope is despair too, just wrapped with a bow.

What we’re looking for is something that can explain evil, where it comes from, why it exists, and what can be done about it. We want to know that there’s hope, but it has to be a real hope, and it has to be able to look the parents of dead children in the eye and still matter.

It has to have more weight than a Thomas Kinkaid manger scene, and it can’t be Facebook platitudes from well-meaning Christians who want to let their non-Christian friends know what Jesus thinks about all this. There is no explaining away this pain with a pithy statement. There’s no out-of-context Bible verse that will make this right so that we can go back to our normal lives, because the point is there is no normal life, no nostalgic moment, where things like this don’t happen. As Christians, we believe that’s why Jesus came in the first place. It’s why we can’t really look at the manger without standing in the shadow of the cross.

That doesn’t mean there’s no hope – because the cross stands in a shadow too, and was far from the final word. But we can’t rush to that hope, because to do that minimizes what the Nativity is trying most to say: that Immanuel, God with us, is here … especially in the pain.

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