12/19/2012 06:27 pm ET Updated Feb 18, 2013

Slaying Innocents and the Meaning and Message of Christmas

The disheveled robed woman, head covered, grasps fiercely at a baby as an armored soldier holds the infant upside down by a tiny foot and stabs it with his sword. Nearby, another women reaches desperately toward a small child impaled on a spear while a soldier holds her at arm's length.

This ancient fresco of the slaying of the innocents kept haunting me as the horror at Sandy Hook Elementary unfolded. The depiction imagines the response of mothers to Herod's order in Matthew 2:13-16 to kill the first-born Jewish sons under two years old born in Bethlehem. In the next scene of this tragedy, a circle of women, unrobed, sit with their hair uncovered and cascading down their backs as a sign of intense grief and lamentation. I found the image tucked into a bay of the narthex of the Chora Church in Istanbul.

In a searing echo of the biblical story, we had our own slaughter of innocents in Newtown during a holiday that focuses, especially, on children. Perhaps that is one reason the story has resonated so deeply across the country and broken so many hearts. It feels like a profound violation of the "meaning" of Christmas, which is a time to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus and turn our attentions to children and their joy.

This sweet, sentimental version of Christmas, however, usually sanitizes or ignores the suffering, vulnerability, and struggles of poverty and the courage of ordinary people that are essential to the message of Christmas. The story begins with the acquisitive greed of an empire determined to tax the working poor into destitution so the elite rich can maintain their lifestyle and sustain the armies that protect their wealth and power.

To assure the tax base, a decree of registration forces subject peoples to migrate, and one young pregnant woman journeys far from home with few resources and no medical care. She is blessed with the care of a husband and the compassion of a harried innkeeper, who rather than send the couple into a cold night, offers them the barn, which is a warm, private shelter to deliver her baby (in colonial winters, people brought their farm animals into their cottages at night for heat).

The pregnancy was precarious from the beginning: Mary was unmarried and worried. When her friend and cousin Elizabeth reassures her that her pregnancy is important, Mary sings:

The Mighty One has done great things for me,and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear himfrom generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things,and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:46ff)

How could a child born under such circumstances not be evidence of an alternative power and value system that challenges the exploitive rich rulers? Jesus was born into a people who respected the strength, resiliency and moral courage of mothers and expected a husband and soon-to-be father to care for his family. They knew the determination of parents to keep their child safe from harm. That family found among ordinary people the resourcefulness of a stressed small businessman who helped a couple in need.

The suspicious and brutal Herod, who wants to eliminate any competition to his power, orders his soldiers to slay potential inheritors of his throne. The mothers of Bethlehem suffer the ultimate cost of his megalomanic ambitions. And they weep bitterly for their slain children.

The biblical story ends with the mothers' lamentation, but the images in Chora offer one surprising final scene. A line of mothers, still disrobed and clothed in private garments with their hair unloosed, stand before Herod on his throne. Each mother stares at Herod intently, shaming him with her eyes. This final image suggests the community's understanding of the moral courage of women and the shame and moral culpability of the elite who pay others to do their dirty work and cause so much suffering.

In Newtown, eight women, like the mothers in Chora, faced down the shooter against impossible odds -- six at the cost of their own lives -- while others rushed to protect the children and hold them safe. It was a reality check about what so often is sentimentalized as the meaning of Christmas.

Newtown reminds us of the tragic suffering that is also part of the Christmas story. Any joy Christians might take from the birth of a savior who proclaimed good news to the poor, recovery of vision for those who refuse to see, liberty for captives, universal debt forgiveness and peace to all humankind must be accompanied by awareness of suffering in the world into which such joy is born. Not just awareness though, but action. To say we believe such a savior is born and to do nothing to fulfill that promise of salvation is to live a lie.

As we mourn the many children's lives cut short by the massacre at Sandy Hook, I hope we remember the moral courage of the women who struggled to save the children. I hope we remember the moral courage of the mothers of a fourth of our nation's children who live without adequate food, housing, education and health care, and I hope we remember the mothers around the world who risk everything to save their children from war, poverty and injustice.

If children are the heart of the meaning of Christmas, the message of the full story of Christmas is what adults must do to keep children alive and help them thrive. If we had the moral courage of mothers, we would not only stop gun violence, but also guarantee universal health care, assure parents living wages for all work, provide excellent schools for every child, and care for families struggling with mental illness. Without the message of Christmas for the world, its meaning for children is thin and hollow.