I woke up yesterday looking forward to an exciting, fun, joyful day. It was the day of my company’s annual Christmas Rally here in Taipei. I was looking forward to greeting the audience as they came in, chatting with them and learning about them, and watching the show, which is usually spectacular.
As I waited for my mind to fully wake up, I wandered into the living room to see if any of my housemates were awake. Sure enough one was sitting on the couch. But the look of shocked concern on her face stopped me in my tracks. “Did you hear the news?”
“There was a school shooting in Connecticut.” The name of my home state drove all sleepiness from my mind as I felt the muscles in my chest clenching. Sitting down, I glanced at the TV report. I think I read the heading two or three times, spelling it out in my head to be sure it said “Newtown” and not “Newington.” With a modicum of relief I realized my family and friends were probably safe.
I numbly sat and watched the news report, but it wasn’t until several hours later that I felt the full effects of what happened. I flopped down on my bed and cried. The high number of deaths, the fact that it seems like no one had been wounded but survived, the fact that I could not think of any possible motive, the young age of the vast majority of the victims and the timing during a season that is a supposed to be a time of joy celebrated with family combined into a towering mass of evil that I just couldn’t take in.
Sprinkled in with my mourning was a recurring question about my own situation: “How will I be able to greet people cheerfully at the Christmas Rally?” It felt somehow inappropriate to be celebrating, wearing sparkly clothing and grinning at people coming to our show when so many people were mourning this senseless violence. But then I realized that I had it backwards. Events like this are exactly why Christmas is worth celebrating.
The reason for this is best explained by a story, not the one that began two thousand years ago in a stable in Bethlehem, but the one that began much earlier in a garden called Eden. The world, as God first formed it was a paradise – a glorious, unblemished landscape, delicate flowers in thousands of colors, a sky full of stars with no pollution to block them, all seen with eyes that were probably keener than our eyes today and received with hearts that celebrated them as signs of the deep love of our Creator. The relationships between people, the world and God were a smooth, harmonious dance. There was no sickness, no death, no evil, no hate. The Hebrew word for this is shalom. Usually translated as peace, it actually refers to far more than the English word “peace.” It means wholeness, abundance and flourishing, all of which were present in the world as it was first made.
Of course, that’s not how we experience the world now, and the reason for that is that people choose to turn away from God. We’ve all felt the effects of sin this weekend, far more deeply than anything I could conjure up with language. And the tragedy in Newtown is just one of millions of manifestations, big and small, of the way our world is broken. Conflict in families, war, prejudice, greed, disease, bullying, natural disasters, etc. all show how far from shalom this world is. The world is broken, and we broke it.
But now, we finally get to that Bethlehem stable. Christmas is a celebration of God stepping into this broken world and living among us. He experienced all kinds of evil during His life – including narrowly escaping from a mass killing of children. And in the end, He bore the worst consequences of our sin, taking the punishment for all breakers of shalom. But He rose from the dead, proving that the seemingly senseless killing of Jesus, the one truly innocent person, succeeded in putting shalom back together, starting with the hearts of His followers and spreading outward into the whole world.
Traditionally, the weeks leading up to Christmas are also a time when Christians wait for Jesus to return to Earth and restore shalom to the whole world. The mourning we share today is one of many reminders that this hasn’t happened yet – but the promise of Christmas is that it will. Even though God’s people had to wait for thousands of years, God did come to save them. His kingdom is established, and though things may look bad now, it will ultimately triumph.
I left for the Christmas rally yesterday with what I can only call joy. Not bubbling happiness or excitement, but a calm, steady delight in the knowledge that this night will pass. I felt the sorrow (and still do) but this vein of deep sadness actually strengthened the hope that I have a savior powerful enough to overcome even horrific evil like this. That is the only thing that makes any Christmas worth celebrating.
If any friends, family or survivors of the Sandy Hook shooting are reading this, I offer my sympathy and condolences. Please know that you are in my thoughts and prayers.