Tragedies of one sort or another strike at every season of the year, somewhere in the world; but tragedy at Christmas is especially poignant. A concert at which I sang just before Christmas supported the work of Save the Children in Syria and among the refugees from that sad conflict, and a representative from the charity told us about some of the work they were doing; it’s so sad that so many children are suffering there, who have no part in that war, nor do their families, just the desire to live in peace and safety. And among the TV adverts for beds and sofas, you’ll have seen many images of suffering children, as aid charities seek our help to challenge poverty, homelessness and disease.
A few weeks ago I watched the final programme in a TV series about pilgrimage, as the presenter arrived at the sacred sites of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The programme didn’t hide away from the fact that there’s something between Jerusalem and Bethlehem now that wasn’t there when I made my visit to those places fifteen years ago. Then we passed through checkpoints, but now there’s also the wall, slabs of sheer grey concrete (with added graffiti) to separate Israel from the Palestinian areas of the West Bank. Many see this wall as unjust, particularly where it separates families from the land that’s their only source of income; but at the same time the state of Israel insists that the wall is vital to preserve their people from the constant threat of terrorist attack. I remember a scene of children looking through gaps in the wall. When communities are divided, and people live in fear of each other, often it’s the innocents, the children, who suffer most.
The first thing that happens after Christmas in our Bibles is also a tragic event; and like so many tragic events, it’s the children who suffer.
[Matthew, chapter 2, vv 16-end]
The historian in me has to admit at this point that we have no independent confirmation of the story Matthew tells us. But it matches what we know of the character of King Herod. This was a man who would stop at nothing to eliminate any challenge to his royal power. He killed several of his own children, so why would he baulk at killing the children of others. And life is cheap. That’s true in the world of today, and it was certainly true then.
The slaughter of the innocents inevitably raises the same one-word question as today’s tragic events - why? I have a friend for whom the story Matthew tells of the slaughter of the innocents is the biggest stumbling block to her faith. It was because of the psychopathic cruelty of King Herod that these children died; but why was it necessary for God's messiah to be born in a land whose king would murder all the other children in the town? Surely, my friend would ask, that’s too big a price to pay? Didn't God know what was going to happen? Didn’t God care?
That last question is one I find rather hard to answer. If God didn’t know, then that diminishes him, and if God did know but didn’t care, that diminishes him too: and what makes God either less than all-knowing or less than all-loving surely also makes him less than God. Could I have faith in a God who really doesn't know what's going to happen next? Or who really doesn't care?
And in that thought there is a major faith challenge. It’s basic to our faith that God is love. And we believe that God is omnipotent - in other words, all-powerful - and omniscient - in other words, all-knowing. And yet the little children died in Bethlehem - as the carol says of Herod ‘All the little boys he killed at Bethlem in his fury’; and today innocent people suffer still, and young lives are still lost that have scarcely begun.
It sort of helps a bit when we have someone to blame. The children died in Bethlehem because of Herod's megalomania and paranoia. But that still leaves the challenge of the images of poverty on our TV screens, in the aftermath of storm or earthquake or other natural disaster. Who’s to blame then? Even when people don’t behave with deliberate cruelly, innocent people still suffer, innocent lives are lost. So is God in charge, or is he not? Or is God a tyrant with the same irrational and cruel streak as Herod or, say, Caligula or Stalin?
My faith is certainly challenged by these events and by my reflections upon them. And yet I go on believing. And what I believe is this - that God cannot be remote and terrible and irrational and cruel, for God is like Jesus. I believe in a God who matches the picture Jesus shows me; I believe in a God whose whole nature is love, and whose way is the way of justice and righteousness. I believe in a God is biased toward the marginalised and the vulnerable and the poor. Indeed, I believe in a God who has chosen to share that life, beginning in the stable at Bethlehem and the flight from Bethlehem to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod: a God who doesn’t stand apart from human tragedy.
But I still have to reconcile that belief with the fact of the persistence of injustice and unrighteousness in the world . . . so how am I going to do that?
C.S. Lewis wrote about 'the problem of pain', something that theologians have wrestled with throughout the whole of Christian history; and at the end of all their writing and thinking the problem remains. Why do I have to suffer, and why does anyone - in particular what about the innocents who just get caught in the crossfire? There comes a point at which rational argument fails, and as a believer I have to take a leap of faith'. I don't have all the answers, and however lovely the Christmas stories, they still leave me short of complete proof. I have to make that leap, and sometimes I can do it with a fair amount of confidence and hope, and other times I find it’s harder. Faith and doubt form two sides of the same coin, I discover. Like St Paul, I see dark reflections in the glass, but hope one day to know fully and completely - to know as I am known.
But the very fact that I’m so appalled by the story of the killings Herod ordered in Bethlehem, the very fact that I’m so moved by the images of suffering on TV, etched on the faces of children I’ll never know, who are halfway round the world from me - that in itself is part of the answer to my faith question. We know about right and wrong, good and bad, darkness and light; we have an intrinsic capacity to care about these things, to know what sort of world we want to see, and Christmas each year rekindles those hopes and dreams within us. And somehow freedom, love and pain are inextricably linked together. God made us free to quest for him, to love him, to serve him - or to ignore him.
Christina Rossetti wrote ‘love came down at Christmas, love all lovely, love divine.’ Love was born into a world where then as now hatred and suffering can seem to have the upper hand, where the streets too often run with blood. In this dark world God proves his love in the birth of this child. But a world in which we’re free to love him back maybe has to be a world of chance and danger, and the new king who enters that world isn’t a king like Herod. He doesn’t descend with chariots of fire, he’s born in a stable.
And even as I welcome the Prince of Peace, the Christmas story as a whole forces me also to admit the reality and potency of evil. It’s dangerous to downplay the role of evil in the world. Everything can’t be explained away in terms of societal pressures, or failures in nurture, or the impact of poverty, or our genetic inheritance . . . nor is evil the preserve of those people the tabloid press likes to label as 'monsters' - and therefore quite different from us. Evil can happen anywhere; evil is what happens when good is absent, and when good people look away.
The murder of the children in Bethlehem is a reminder of what happens when evil is rampant and unchecked. All that’s needed for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing. The battle between good and evil is fundamental to our human experience, and it’s an inevitable component of the story of love. And though I don't have a complete answer to the problem of pain and evil, I think I do have the beginning of an answer that I can work with. The story of the Word made flesh who dwells among us tells me that God doesn’t leave himself out but includes himself in: love incarnate is calling us to love, and lighting our way.
And this is love not just as an idea or a tinselly picture, but as a programme for action, and for courageous and generous living. So let’s not just think about love, but do it. Evil reigns not so much because bad people do bad things, but because good people let them. Let me close with some words for Christmas from the black author, educationalist and civil rights leader Howard Thurman.
When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and the princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
then the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.