For everyone, the celebration of Christmas will be different this year. After the killing of 20 children and those entrusted with their care in Newtown just 11 days before the holiday (and on the sixth day of Hanukkah, which was being celebrated by at least one of the children), how can the yearly celebration of the birth of another child in Bethlehem not be any different?
Over the centuries, a certain lightheartedness has come to characterize the celebration of Christmas. Of course, there is joy to be associated with the Christian commemoration of the belief that God became a human being in order to save the world. But there is a difference between joy and frivolity. It would seem that, this year, we are being made to understand the difference.
Let us consider, for example, the image of the baby, Jesus, in his mother's arms. This image, replicated in countless variations on countless Christmas cards, is familiar to all of us. But have we ever stopped to think about why in most artistic representations, from Byzantine icons to Renaissance paintings, the Virgin Mary does not look as happy as one would expect of a new mother. At best she appears reflective, and usually she seems sad.
Interpretations of such art typically attribute this curious fact to a desire on the part of the artists to indicate Mary's foreknowledge of the crucifixion that would befall her son, or her confusion about the mysterious events surrounding his miraculous birth. Whatever the artists' intentions, if, in our imagination when contemplating the Nativity story, it is possible that these depictions capture what must have been Mary's state of mind during those first few months of motherhood, despite the angel's message some nine months earlier about her son's role in the world it is more likely that she was concerned with matters more immediate and tangible.
Perhaps she was feeling guilty for giving birth to her son in a stable instead of in her home. Probably she was worried about how she would feed this baby in the midst of her poverty. No doubt she was wondering if this infant would survive to adulthood at a time when only half of all children did so. And, most chillingly in light of the events of the past few days, certainly she was feeling a complicated mix of emotions knowing her child had escaped death when so many other children were slaughtered in the murderous rampage of a crazed man.
And yet, it is in these awful circumstances that we can find the true joy of Christmas. In the Scriptures, we read that Jesus was called "'Emmanuel,' which means 'God with us'" (Matthew 1:23). The message here is that God is with us, as a human being, precisely in the difficult, terrible and even horrific circumstances of life. The message of Christmas is that, in the face of such things, God does not offer an escape, but that God offers salvation through extreme compassion, by living alongside us in all our vulnerability, dying with us and giving us new life through the resurrection.
And so this year, as we struggle to figure out how best to celebrate Christmas, we may find that our celebration will not be as lighthearted as it usually is. But even in our pain, as we ponder, like Mary, the meaning and comfort of Jesus' birth in our hearts (Luke 2:19), we may also discover that there is no less joy.
The author, an Orthodox Christian theologian, is associate general secretary at the National Council of Churches, where he directs ecumenical theological dialogue and interfaith relations.