We like to think of Christmas as a magical time of the year. That is particularly true for those of us in New York, where the season leading up to Christmas takes on a seemingly magical atmosphere. It feels like winter. There are ice skaters at Rockefeller Center, Central Park and Bryant Park. The store windows along Fifth Avenue tell stories of elves and reindeer. Lighted trumpeting angels line the streets. All we need is a little snow. It is easy to fall into the magic, and who wouldn't want to?
Among the things stolen from us last week was Christmas magic. Nothing seems magical in a world where a disturbed young man could enter a school and shoot 26 people, including 20 children, reveling, no doubt, in the magic of the season of anticipation, and erasing visions of sugar plums with brutal permanence. I have read that residents of Newtown, Conn., have been taking down the so recently unveiled Christmas decorations. Christmas has become difficult to bear. The magic has gone out of the air.
In truth, though, Christmas has never been all that magical, even from the beginning. We tend to overlook that the holy birth occurred in Bethlehem because of an act of oppression, and the threat of violence, when a man and woman were forced to travel from Nazareth to their ancestral home by the decree of an occupying army in the final days of the young woman's pregnancy.
And, although we tend to be only vaguely aware of it, the massacre of innocents, not at all unlike the one we experienced on Friday, is woven inextricably into the story. Only three days after Christmas Day, on Dec. 28, the Church's calendar remembers the other children of Bethlehem, the ones left behind when Joseph fled with Mary and Jesus to Egypt for safety following an angelic warning, the ones slaughtered by King Herod in a fearful rage.
There is really nothing at all magical about Christmas or the birth of Christ. No matter how much we might like to make it so, it has never been. Though we may rarely come to terms with it as somehow we must this year, the Christmas story begins and ends in violence shockingly similar to that at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
We should not be surprised. We should not be surprised that the incarnation of good, of which the innocence of all children reminds us, is not received either warmly or passively by the presence of evil. Sometimes that evil finds its expression in armies of violence, sometimes in greed and fear and power, and sometimes in clouds of darkness that overtake and consume those among us most vulnerable to delusion left to their own devices by a society deaf to the needs of the mentally ill.
No, there is nothing magic about Christmas at all. That is good. Magic too easily lets us off the hook for the role we are called to play in the story, the story of goodness being birthed in the world, the story of light that the darkness would overcome, the story of innocence confronted by evil, the story of Christ.
The world is not magic, and Christmas has no special exemption from that. Every single day, eight children in America are killed by gun violence. That's 56 children every week, almost three times the number of children killed at Sandy Hook. Every single week, 75 adults in America are killed by gun violence, more than 12 times as many as at Sandy Hook. Half a world away, in Afghanistan, 10 little girls were killed yesterday by an explosion while gathering firewood, possibly the result of a new bomb or a decades-old landmine forgotten and left behind, now just part of the landscape in this troubled part of the world. It is everywhere. Why on earth would we ever think there was a Christmas vacation from violence and death? There is no magic. There never has been.
No, there is no magic. What there is is an age-old struggle with evil that comes in many forms. Christmas comes into play, not because it represents even a temporary respite from reality, but because the birth of incarnate love lays bare the reality that it is the evil that does not belong here. The birth of incarnate love lays bare that the slaughter of innocents in whatever form, child or adult, finds no place, no home, no tolerance, no business as usual in the world of which God dreams.
And once we are robbed of the magic of Christmas, we begin, maybe, to grasp its reality. The reality is that the birth of the Christ child does not cast a magical spell rendering the presence of evil ineffectual. It does not relieve humankind of the reality of the world we have made of the creation. Rather, it invites us to participate in its redemption. The birth of the Christ child is not a tool for us to use, like sorcerer's apprentices, magically relieving us from doing the hard work that needs to be done. It is a call to action.
The grace of the death of magic this Christmas may be that it has starkly called us to wake up and look around us, and to take part in the work begun when a babe was laid in a manger by its holy mother on a probably not-so-peaceful night many, many years ago. We can disabuse ourselves of any notion that magic is going to save us, even at Christmas, and this year especially at Christmas. What is going to save us is entering into the life of that infant, the Holiest of Innocents, the Christ.
And, as we do, we can find a joy based on what is real surpasses even magic. Our true joy is the assurance that in this particular child, Jesus, God has entered the world in a profoundly real, not magical, way. And that in this particular child, light has come into the world and the darkness did not, and will not, overcome it.
Bishop Stacy Sauls is the Chief Operating Officer of the Episcopal Church.
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