By Brett Younger
Twenty-eight Christmases ago I was the new pastor of Central Baptist Church in Paoli, Ind. I decided to have the church’s first ever Christmas Eve candlelight communion service. I wanted everything to be perfect.
Snow fell that afternoon. A high school junior, Melody Lawson, played What Child Is This on the flute. Three generations — a grandmother, her daughter, and granddaughter — lit the Advent candles. We sang the carols — O Come All Ye Faithful, Away in a Manger, and O Little Town of Bethlehem. We read the story — Mary, Joseph, the baby, and the manger. I thought: “This is a Hallmark card of a worship service. This is as picture perfect a Christmas moment as any church has ever known.”
That’s when Danny Hickman’s beeper went off. Danny was a member of the volunteer fire department. When his beeper sounded, as it often did — and it was 10 times as likely to go off in church as anywhere else — Danny ran out of the sanctuary. We had almost gotten used to it, but it was disconcerting.
We started singing Silent Night. Just as we got to “Wondrous Star, lend thy light,” Danny ran back in and shouted that Bob Lawson’s mother’s house was on fire. Bob and Linda, his wife, and Melody, their daughter, ran out after Danny. Danny’s wife got up and left. Everyone had to choose between listening to the preacher’s sermon or slipping out one by one and going to a really big fire.
By the time I got Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, the crowd — and I use that term loosely — was made up of those who were waiting for a ride home and those who had fallen asleep. That’s not how Christmas Eve candlelight communion services are supposed to turn out. Tragedies should wait until January, because they don’t fit our ideas about Christmas.
That’s why the days after Christmas are a good time to think about King Herod. The horrifying sequence of events in Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t feel like it belongs in the Christmas story. The most difficult part to cast in the Christmas pageant is King Herod. Any child that wants to play Herod should not be trusted to play Herod. Walmart sells a variety of plastic nativity scenes for the yard, but there are no glow-in-the-dark King Herods.
No Christmas card has this verse from Matthew on the front —“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation.” Herod’s order was the death of every male infant in Bethlehem. Matthew cannot find words terrifying enough to describe the horror, so he borrows words from the prophet Jeremiah: “weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; she refuses to be consoled, because they are no more.”
My second Christmas as pastor of Central Baptist Church, I got a phone call from the county hospital on Dec. 23. The night before, an unwed teenager had a stillborn baby. The social worker wanted me to lead a graveside service the next morning. She explained that they would normally have the service a day later or at least in the afternoon, but she “didn’t want the girl to associate this experience with Christmas.” The teenager had visited our church a few times several months earlier. She was 15 and had been raped by her grandfather.
Christmas Eve was miserable. The snow had been on the ground for more than a week. It had rained and so the snow was not pretty any more. The temperature was in the 20s. The sky was dark and threatening to rain again.
Her older sister brought her straight from the hospital. Their parents did not come. They blamed their daughter for what happened. There were six of us there: the teenager, her sister, the funeral director, two women from our church and me. I knew what I had been told: “We don’t want her to associate this experience with Christmas.” But I kept thinking about the story that Matthew tells. Christmas is about mothers crying because their children have died: “wailing and loud lamentation, weeping and great mourning, … refusing to be consoled, because they are no more.”
Christmas is not good news of a great joy that will make everything easy. God comes into the noise and storms, wind and wailing, dying children, raging soldiers and devastated parents. God shares the pain of every one whose life is falling apart. The promise of this holy season is that God’s hope is deeper than our sadness.