Violent Night, Holy Night

The year was thankfully drawing to a close. 1968. What a year it had been. It began with the Tet offensive in Viet Nam. That led to Walter Cronkite, America’s “most trusted” journalist, voicing his conclusion that the war could not be won. That led to President Lyndon Johnson concluding that if he had “lost Cronkite, he had lost” either the American people or the war (according to which version you accept). That led to Johnson’s decision not to run for another term. That led to a Democratic Convention in Chicago that resulted in riots. Along the way were the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and then Robert F. Kennedy. It was year of turmoil. College campuses were erupting in protest over the war and cities erupted in violence over the assassinations. In December of that year, NASA launched the first manned mission to the moon and on December 24, 1968 the crew of Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders in a live videocast from lunar orbit read portions of the creation account from Genesis 1 and then signed off by saying, “Good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you — all of you on the Good Earth.” That referenced the iconic picture taken from lunar orbit of earthrise above the lunar horizon. That awesome “blue marble” streaked with white clouds rising above the desolate lunar landscape and suspended in the blackness of space. Someone would send a telegram to NASA commending them for having “saved 1968.”

Here we are at the end of another year, which has also seen its share of turmoil. Another presidential election year. Another war in a small country thousands of miles away, dividing us and draining our resources. Then came the events of ten days ago in Newtown, CT. Horrible words. Pictures. Memories. We’ve seen it all too often, but even once would be too often. Twenty-seven people shot and killed. Twenty of them just children. The President weeps on national television, and he weeps for all of us. And all of this happening just before Christmas. But Christmas has always had a connection with violence. The angel chorus decreed that it was a night of “peace on earth,” but violence of the human heart has fought that every step of the way. The very birth of he who would be called the “Prince of Peace” was the cause of a king of this world, Herod the Great, to order the slaughter of male children who were of an age to possibly be the One who would challenge him. The violence of 1968 and of 2012, as well as every other year, demonstrates the struggle in which we are engaged.

Some voices in the last ten days have tried to simplify the problem to being one of us having somehow kicked God out of the public square, out of the schools. Why, they ask, should we not expect to experience such violence after we exclude God from our public lives? Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association took it a step further on his radio broadcast when he said even as the events were still unfolding, “I think God would say to us, ‘Hey, I’ll be glad to protect your children, but you’ve got to invite me back into your world first. I’m not going to go where I’m not wanted. I am a gentlemen.” Such a pathetic, puny view of God in which we have power to cast out the Almighty! And such a vindictive view of God. Watching innocent children be slaughtered when he could have intervened to stop it but did not because his pride was hurt or to prove a point. What kind of “gentleman” would stand by and allow such things to happen without doing everything in his power to stop it? Neither you nor I would behave that way. That’s not a gentleman. That’s a demon. And so far from being the Father about whom Jesus spoke and whose very being he enfleshed.

Then where is God when these events occur? That’s really the question that disturbs us, isn’t it? We have invested in the idea of a God who matters, who makes a difference in our lives. Events such as these confront us with the simplicity of our understanding of what that means, or doesn’t mean. God was there in Newtown that day. He’s always there. Everywhere. Every day. He just doesn’t always look like we expect him to look. We expect him to look like Santa Claus, gathering the items on our wish list. Or standing by to deflect bullets in mid-flight. Or suspending the laws of his own creation in order to deliver us. Instead, God often comes in the appearance of a first responder. Or a stranger off the street. Or even an enemy who offers a hand in friendship. Two thousand years ago the people whom God had prepared for this very moment were looking for a king who would be born of royal blood and who would appear at the head of a divine army to deliver God’s people. Instead, God entered his world as a powerless peasant child, and most people missed him.

On Christmas Eve of 1968, as the astronauts were reading the creation account from lunar orbit, I was watching the television coverage of that event from the father’s waiting room in a hospital. Our daughter was born that day, and she became for me the incarnation of the words being read from the moon. Nobody else listening probably had that experience, but I did. And for me, she (not Apollo 8) saved 1968 for me. It’s not too late for 2012 to also be redeemed. Once again we celebrate the coming of the Almighty to his creation in the form of a human baby. This child came to redeem and can also redeem this year. But we’ve got to be looking in the right place and with the right expectations. Emmanuel. God is with us! Again. Still.

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