Christmas in Newtown: God’s Listening, Loving Presence

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, December 19, 2012

“Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.”

I concluded last week’s column with a lament by the psalmist, “How long, O Lord . . . will you hide your face from me?” I promised I would share in this week’s column how I see Christmas as God’s response.

A lot has happened since then. Last Friday, while malls across the land were playing “Silent Night” for morning shoppers, the beautiful silence of the season was shattered by the ugly sound of gunfire in Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Conn. Twenty young students and six school officials lay dead, as well as the gunman and his mother.

The day after the shooting, Cochrane coffee companion Adele Dyall brought to my attention the 1966 Simon and Garfunkel recording, “7 O’Clock News.” It featured their singing of “Silent night! Holy night! All is calm, all is bright ” against a background broadcast of the day’s headlines back then: the Vietnam War, racial tensions, murder and mayhem.

The irony is painful, especially in view of events in that small New England town these 46 years later. Not much has changed, eh?

As the psalmist pled, “How long, O Lord?”

So, just how can I affirm “the dawn of redeeming grace” that shoppers were hearing that morning over mall speakers?

Things weren’t much different some 2,000 years ago when the angelic chorus sang “Peace on earth” in announcing the birth of the Prince of Peace.

The Holy Land was occupied by a foreign power; murder, violence and tax fraud were rampant; racism, poverty and despair were everywhere.

Then Jesus entered on the scene, not in a mansion, but in a manger.

He was to be known as Immanuel, a name that means “God is with us.”

Of Him the Scriptures declare: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.” (Hebrews 1:1–3)

A word of such power and authority, born in such humble circumstances?

Yet 30 years after His birth, the Word Himself began His public ministry by declaring:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18–19)

Indeed, in His most memorable sermon, Immanuel echoes the angelic birth announcement by describing the blessedness of the peace He was bringing and the kind of people who would recognize Him:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted . . . .” (Matthew 5:3ff)

Thus was the psalmist’s urgent plea answered, for as another Scripture declares:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:1, 14)

Of course, the Christian significance of Christmas cannot be fully appreciated without also acknowledging the suffering of Good Friday, when the Son of God Himself experienced death on a cruel cross, the ultimate act of humiliation in anticipation of His Heavenly Father raising Him from the grave on that first Easter and paving the way of hope for all future generations.

It’s in that entire birth, death and resurrection narrative that we see revealed “the dawn of redeeming grace” of which we sing in “Silent Night.”

And it’s in that hope of redeeming grace that we find implications for us today who live in the shadow of the evil that befell a small New England town last week.

You see, like that psalmist of old, many today must be asking, “How long, O Lord?”

And just as Jesus’ name is Immanuel – “God is with us” – so God is still with us even now, in the listening, loving presence of His Spirit through you and me.

President Obama, I think, captured the heart of that message over the weekend when he said to the grieving community: “Newtown, you are not alone.” He expanded on that with words he’d used nearly two years earlier following the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz.: “We may not be able to stop all the evil in the world, but how we treat one another, that’s entirely up to us.”

Not alone? Up to us? Yes! For all of us can be God’s loving Christmas presence/presents to each other.


© 2012 Warren Harbeck

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