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
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 first graders 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,
Connecticut have been taking down the so recently unveiled Christmas
decorations. Christmas has become difficult to bear. The magic has
gone out of the air.
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.
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
December 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.
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.
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
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.
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, over 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
wish you all a joyous, but not remotely magical, Christmas. May your
joy be as real as the light, as real as the goodness, as real as the