The manger looks different this year
David R. Weiss
December 13, 2003
I wrote this piece eight years ago. And it has been true every Christmas since then. The details change. The dying continues.
The manger looks different this year. Like most Christians I am getting ready for Christmas. Most of America is getting ready for Christmas, of course, but on terms that would prefer to reduce the holy day to a holiday defined by pretty lights and plentiful shopping. Meanwhile, I try to keep my bearings on a truth that runs deeper than decorations and is more real than anything rung up on a cash register.
Christians express this in a variety of ways. I know some will find my way of saying it inadequate, but for me Christmas is about celebrating the truth that God longs to be in our midst—and that in the life of Jesus of Nazareth that longing took on flesh. So as Christmas Eve approaches I hope once again to feel myself swallowed up by the deep wonder of the Christ child laid in a manger.
But this year (once again) my wonder is framed by war. This year as I seek the child of Bethlehem I am haunted by his own words that tell me I will find him no longer in the manger but in “the least of these my brothers and sisters.” And I wonder, was it simply a handful of unfortunate children who perished in Afghanistan under US fire last week—or was it Christ? (You can read the BBC’s report on these events here.)
Three days after Christmas the church remembers the Holy Innocents, those children slaughtered by King Herod in his futile attempt to kill the Christ child. Like those holy innocents, the 15 children killed in Afghanistan also fell victim to a ruler’s insatiable appetite for national security. Like those children who perished under Herod’s sword, they, too, lost their lives over political ambitions that have no use for a Prince of Peace. But I worry that by December 28th they’ll be forgotten. Buried beneath heaps of crumpled wrapping paper and overshadowed by a host of college bowl games, who will remember the Holy Innocents after Christmas?
I understand, of course, that war is a messy business, and that innocents—even children—will regrettably die. But I do not understand how Christians can claim the Lordship of Jesus and so utterly comprise—no, betray—his teachings on nonviolence as soon as the words “national security” or “patriotism” are invoked. I do not understand how the deaths of these children can fail to silence every Christmas carol in shame.
Yes, their deaths were accidental, yet inevitable. They were the result of my country’s eagerness to defend my national security (and my children’s) even if other parents’ children are made expendable along the way. Never mind that my country’s reckless ambition has made me (and my children) more expendable in the eyes of others whose desperation and anger make terrorism an imaginable recourse.
Well, since December 10th, the manger looks different this year. And I think the only way I will be able to honor the truth of Christmas is to somehow honor the Feast of Holy Innocents three days before Christmas instead of afterward. True, my nation is not the only purveyor of violence in the world today, but it does so more openly under the flag of Christian values than any other. And for that I am ashamed.
This year I need to brace myself. Because I know on Christmas Eve, when I go to church to sing the familiar carols, the manger up front—unseen by many—will hold the mangled bodies of 15 children from Afghanistan, the least of these my brothers and sisters. And I do not know how I will sing “Joy to the World” this year.