The Slaughter of the Innocents of Sandy Hook

The Slaughter of the Innocents of Sandy Hook December 12, 2014

ModernMagi_fbThis post is taken from the un-edited manuscript of the book I’m working on and is part of a special Patheos conversation: “Modern Magi on the Mysteries of Christmas,” featuring myself, Scot McKnightKyle Roberts, and Billy Kangas

If I asked 100 people the question, who brought gifts to the Christ child, how many people were there, where were the people from and where did they bring their gifts to…inevitably people would respond: Well, three kings from the orient brought the baby Jesus gifts in the manger. And everyone around would likely nod their heads and say “yep. that sounds right”. Three kings from the orient bringing gifts to Jesus in a manger is a charming story but it’s not actually the one we find in the Bible.

A closer reading of Matthew shows that we have no idea how many people there were, we don’t know how far east they came from, was it the Orient … was it New Jersey? When they found the child they entered not a stable or a barn with a manger but a house and most importantly, they were definitely not kings. They were Magi as in, magicians; and not the cute kind you hire for you kid’s birthday party. More likely, they were opportunistic, pagan, soothsaying, tarot card reading astrologers. Yet history made them out to be kings, maybe because the reality that they were magicians is too distasteful, since no one wants the weird fortune teller lady from the circus with her scarves and crystal balls to be the first to discover the birth of our Lord. So the story has been “nicened” up into an idealized picture of multi-cultural diplomacy.

This couldn’t be more ironic, turning the Magi into kings, like we are doing them some great favor, because honestly everything in Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus is decidedly anti-king. I mean, there is a king in that text, but it’s Herod: a scheming, frightened, insecure, troglodyte who puts a hit out on a toddler. This is what the text has to say about kings.

But the Epiphany story of Herod and infanticide reveals a God who has entered our world as it actually exists, and not as the world we often wish it would be. Because God’s love is too pure to enter into a world that does not exist.

I wonder if we’ve lost the plot if we use religion as the place where we escape from the difficult realities of our lives instead of as the place where those difficult realities are given meaning.  Of course, there are many ways of pretending shit ain’t broke in ourselves and in the world, but escapist religion is a classic option since at church we have endless opportunities to pretend everything is fine.

But when we find ourselves in a world where we see up-to-the-minute images of human suffering, we simply cannot afford any more fucking sentimentality in Christianity. Not one more soft-focus photo of a dove flying in front of a waterfall with an inspirational verse on a coffee cup, not one more over-produced recording of earnest praise music, not one more Thomas Kincaide painting. I don’t think Jesus would abide this ignoring of reality in favor of emotional idealism and I know for sure we cannot afford it. Not when we live in a world where suffering is as real as it was when Jesus was born and people are longing for something to help make sense of their suffering. Sentimental images of Santa kneeling at a manger are not helping us make sense of the world as it actually exists.

Because any sentimentalization of the grittiest, harshest, most naked realities around us just isn’t honest. It’s not honest about ourselves. It’s not honest about God and it’s not honest about our world. Not when we live in a world where in 2012, eleven days before Christmas, Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School and slaughtered innocent children. Suddenly, in the middle of “Christmas Season,” drummer boys and blinking lights and cheerful music felt mocking and out of place and, no one was in a cozy “Christmas mood”.

The risk some of us Christians can run if we do not know our own story (or when it is so overly-familiar we stop paying attention to it) is that we start to think that Christianity has only warm sugar cookies and hot cocoa to offer during the Christmas season and nothing to offer as we witness children slaughtered in their school rooms.

And what is precarious about Biblical illiteracy surrounding the Christmas story is not that we unblinkingly place shepherds and magi together at the birth of Jesus (characters from two totally different narratives, spaced apart by years), it’s that we don’t know to place Herod there.

We may be used to hearing some Christians say “let’s keep Christ in Christmas” but my friend Joy Carol Wallis wrote an essay called “Let’s keep Herod in Christmas,” and I have to say, I’m with her, because the world into which Christ was born was certainly not one of a Normal Rockwell painting. The world has never been that world. God did not enter the world of our nostalgic silent-night, snow-blanketed peace-on-earth sugar cookie suspended-reality of Christmas. God slipped into the vulnerability of skin and entered a world as violent and disturbing as our own. Here in this Christmas story, the story of Herod, there simply is no mistletoe and reindeer. This Christmas story of a despotic ruler slaughtering children out of little more than his personal insecurity somehow never makes it onto wrapping paper or Christmas cards, yet the slaughter of the Holy Innocents is as much a part of the Christmas and Epiphany story as are shepherds and angels. So the first Sunday of Christmas in 2012, I preached that.  But it wasn’t enough. We also had to remember the dead.

I stood in front of my congregation that day  and prayed the names of dead teachers and children, our intern Alex solemnly struck a bell for each of them. “Charlotte Bacon, 6” A bell rings. “Daniel Barden, 7” another bell. “Olivia Engel, 6” the vibration from each bell felt as though it was shaking my insides so hard that images are escaping from deep in my mind of every 6 year old I’ve ever known and with each bell strike I see them laying in a classroom corner.

I couldn’t read the final name on the list right away, since it took me a minute to reach deep enough into my theological convictions in order to find the mercy to do so since I didn’t have much of my own to offer. I had been so intensely focused on telling the truth about the kind of world that God entered that I had forgotten in my sermon to actually mention why God entered it. If I couldn’t also speak the truth that God came to us in Jesus Christ in order to save us, that God created us in God’s image and that lives we’d rather extinguish are still precious to their maker, and that the North Star that so brightly lit the way for the Magi to find the Christ Child shone for them and Herod and myself and Charlotte Bacon and the sick young man who killed her, then I really had no business mentioning anything at all. So I dug deep to speak the truth of God. “And in obedience to your command to love the enemy and pray for those who persecute us” my voice cracked as if the courage was draining out of it. “Adam Lanza, 20” Another, final bell ring.

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  • Jonathan

    May the most life-draining parts of the Gospel also be the most life-affirming.

  • Karen Orlandi

    Wow, Nadia – You’ve done it again. Read my mind and then put it into words I Can understand and “get”. I was wondering the other day – How bad did the world have to be for God to send his son to earth, and surely the world is that bad now… and then I started thinking that it really was horrific then.

  • Michael Moore

    Incredibly powerful… And truthful! The grittiness and rawness of the real Christmas story.

  • Laurel

    Thank you, Nadia, for sharing this.

  • Gregg

    You have a great future as a short story writer.

    • duhsciple

      Pure criticism and accusation, no content.

      I vote with Nadia. We need to keep Herod in Christmas and the Little Drummer Boy out

    • Scott Amundsen

      What on earth are you talking about? There are only two birth narratives in the Bible. One is found in Matthew, the other is found in Luke. Both stories disagree on many things.

  • Waving the bloody shirt.

  • Pr. Owen Griffiths

    Well said, Pastor. The Christmas story is a diagnosis of our human weakness, not an opiate. And, yes, I agree that the Christmas card idealization of Matthew’s nativity story seems to have replaced the actual Biblical text. Still, I have a fondness for the classic iconography. Three magi–an old man, a middle-aged man, and a young man–symbolizing that Christ came for all ages. They are also depicted historically as a Middle-easterner, a black African, and a European, symbolizing Christ came for all nations (Why not a woman..?) And, of course, it takes someone who stands outside the mainstream to wake us insiders up to God’s true gift of grace.

  • Keith

    I just want to point out there is more then one King mentioned in the text. Not to be an asshole just thought that’s an important part. Considering Herod was a pretender to the throne and saw the child Jesus as a threat to his power. Therefore wanted him killed. The Bible usually doesn’t take to kindly to most kings. They are not presented well in the Old Testament either come to think of it. Your description of Herod could apply to a sizable majority.

  • JenellYB

    Thank you. I’m coming to feel ever more strongly that the one biggest single reason those leaving the churches and this religion as it as become is one no one wants to say, or hear. It is cut the b.s. and nonsense, drop the lovely fantasies of a magic Christianity to lure us in, and the horrors of a frightening Hell to scare us in, and Get REAL, and get HONEST!

  • joeyj1220

    Sadly appropriate that I read this on the day that 132 children were slaughtered in Pakistan by extremists who spread hate and fear

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    Powerful and important stuff, and a well-done message for a sermon at this time of year (and this comment is coming from a non-Christian, incidentally).

  • Frank6548

    When will you stand up for the over 27k innocents killed each week mostly for reasons of convenience and comfort?

  • Josh Magda

    “Because God’s love is too pure to enter into a world that does not exist.”

    I Love this line so much.

    “God slipped into the vulnerability of skin and entered a world as violent and disturbing as our own.”

    Yes, She did. A violent World, and also, a beautiful World. As Hellen Keller, an individual who was deaf and blind, and thus someone who in the usual way of esteeming things, would be less equipped to experience G-d than others, said:

    “This World is full of suffering… and also its overcoming.”

    So here’s some Beauty to contrast with that violence and suffering. God’s Peace, or Wholeness, this Christmas… Josh


    For starters, here is a wonderfully healing spiritual exercise you can do, called “Compassionate Body Scan.”

    And here’s a few more thoughts.

    The body is a community, an organ of spiritual perception, a vehicle of divinity and a palette of divine imagination. Every syllable we utter is a little miracle, every breath is a breath that God breathes through us. God Loves and enjoys journeying with bodies throughout this Universe, a Universe where matter is very rare, and animal Life is even rarer. It is a special privilege and rare opportunity in the House of Spirit, to be a body. As a profound story from the NDE literature may have relayed to us: human beings are legendary throughout the House of Spirit (John 14:2) for our imaginations, and the limitations of the body are creative limitations that, among other things, can breed enormously large Hearts and imaginations. Instead of reviling the body because of its constraints, we can try to make the best use of those constraints, whenever we have the opportunity to do so.

    If incarnation were an attraction at Disney World, the line to get a body in our Universe would be much longer than the line for “Space Mountain” at the busiest time of year. So let’s quit whining about the line and try to enjoy the ride, for like “Space Mountain,” our ride on the Space-Time Universe will be over before we know it, and if we aren’t careful, we will miss our precious Earthly Life and all of its unique spiritual adventures.

  • Josh Magda

    To my ear, the pronunciation of Lanza’s name sounds like the most God-like sentence you spoke that day. Can you see the spiritual immensity of forgiveness, especially when it’s difficult? When we’re lucid, I think we can…

    If anything reveals the Infinite in human affairs, it is forgiveness. The Valley of Dry Bones really happens, and it happens every day. It’s happening right now.

  • Booshie Gram

    Very good sermon, Pastor. I’ve not heard one like it at Christmas.