We added something to our Advent Wreath this year: it is a bullet shell that has been carved into a small cross by someone who is involved in a peacemaking organization (I believe in sub-Saharan Africa). It felt appropriate in light of all the recent and tragic violence to put it by the wreath this Advent to remember the pain and redemption of violence. Whatever you think of gun control, if you are a Christian, you believe that the gun is not our hope. A gun will not save you or anyone else. And we must, as Christians, confess that we wait for and work for a day when “swords will be beat into plowshares.” If we, as a church, are more focused and committed to the sword than the plowshares we are hoping for, then we, as a church, need to ask what repentance and belief means in this culture and what kind of transformation we are called to embody.
There is such pressured craze to be hap-hap-happy as the holidays approach that there is often confusion or even shame about admitting the heartbreak that accompanies this season. I love that the Church, unlike the culture, knows that there can be no feasting without fasting, no celebration without preparation. And so it gives us the season of Advent to admit that things are not the way they are supposed to be. We recall together that the reason that we long for the return of Jesus is because we are in desperate need of a Redeemer and that there is enough evil in each human heart that we all need a savior-not just Adam Lanza or the NRA or the conservatives or the liberals. I need to go no further than my own mind and heart to see the evil that holds the world captive and makes me long for the coming ransom. This Advent is the time to speak frankly of that evil and the grittier hope that has come, is coming, and will come.
When I heard about the shooting at Newtown, I immediately thought of my little girls and I cried a lot. My second thought was of The Feast of the Holy Innocents. This little known feast day falls on December 28, right in the middle of Christmas celebration. It is a day set aside to remember the children Herod slaughtered in the nativity story (if you don’t know what I’m talking about read the Christmas story in the gospel of Matthew). These children- “Holy Innocents”- are remembered as martyrs because they died for the name of Christ, in some sense because of the coming of Christ. I can think of no other day that better captures this confused broken beauty-this ‘already’ and ‘not yet’- of human existence. We remember dying children with horror and we celebrate their lives and their resurrection to come with a feast day. My colleague, Fr. Dale Brown also thought of the Holy Innocents when he heard about the violence in Connecticut and posted a prayer that is said on December 28:
You are the God of the weak and the vulnerable.
Lord, have mercy.
You judge the tyrant and the cruel.
Christ, have mercy.
You wipe away the tears of the broken-hearted.
Lord, have mercy.
We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the,Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend these little children. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, sheep of your own fold, a lambs of your own flock, sinners of your own redeeming. Receive them into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.
May their souls and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace, until the day of the Resurrection. Amen.
We have several dear friends who are walking through a little bit of hell right now because of the suffering of their children. When I pray this this December 28, I’ll think not only of ancient Bethlehem, but of Newtown, of Syria, of Darfur, of children who are victimized by those with more power and of our friends right here in Nashville.
It is not enough now to focus on our rights or to condemn the “sword”, we all must do the hard daily work of peacemaking. The work of beating a sword into a plowshare isn’t easy. Metal is bent and broken and transformed with effort and pain over time. But this work of redemption is happening even now as God works his good news of peace into every inch of cursed darkness. And that is why we put a bullet on our advent wreath: Because someone who I don’t know did the hard work of making that bullet shell, a symbol of the false power of violence, into an object of worship that speaks of the true power of the redemption of Jesus. And I want my family, my church, and I to be about that same sort of work in small ways everyday.