Holy, Innocent, Massacred

The senseless death of children has dampened many Christmas celebrations this year. But this is not the first Christmas derailed by the sorrow of incomprehensible loss. Too many mothers for too many years have quietly retreated from holiday dinner tables, tears of immeasurable grief staining their cheeks.

Matthew tells us in his gospel that even the very first Christmas was quickly shrouded with the brutal reality of untimely death. Herod, angered by the wise men's deception, ordered the death of all children under the age of two in and around Bethlehem. The inconsolable grief, the wailing and the lamentation of the mothers in Bethlehem echoes in the empty heart cavities of mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers who have lost their own holy and innocent young to massacre, cancer, careless driving, and war. In many church traditions, December 28th is set aside as the feast day of the Holy Innocents, a remembrance of those children murdered in Bethlehem so many years ago.

The Massacre of the Holy Innocents by Pieter Brugel, 1565-7
Today, the church sits in lamentation in the midst of celebration. Yes, our God is with us. Jesus, our Emmanuel, has been born, but all is not well. His presence breaks into the darkness in our world, but the kingdom is not yet fully known, the darkness not fully expelled. The brutality of being human has not yet been fully removed. Senseless death makes this all too apparent, too real, too painful.

Today is the day that we name the truth of Christmas: Bethlehem was not still, it was not lost in deep and dreamless sleep, the hopes and fears of the people of Bethlehem were met by the sword of a tyrant's army. This is the day that we put down our red cheer and don a grieving purple. This is the day that we can say that Christmas does not answer all our hopes and our fears, but brings an entirely new set of hopes and fears. This is the day that we remember honest celebrations do not tell lies of avoidance and denials of pain.

Today is the day our faithfulness is kept honest.

Faithfulness in this world of violence is not a life miraculously devoid of physical, emotional and spiritual anguish. Faithfulness shares the grief of the mothers of Bethlehem and Newtown and Durham and Syria. It knows incomprehensible loss, but does not claim to understand it or know its cause.

Faithfulness faces the brutality of our world and denies it the final word. It enters into places of bitter sorrow and abides with the brokenhearted. It rejects violence as our way of life and declares the mercy of an Incarnate God to be the truest mode of being. Faithfulness in this world names the truth of our pain and names Jesus as its overcomer, Messiah, Savior.

The feast of the Holy Innocents reminds us to pray in the midst of Christmas celebrations, Come, Lord Jesus, have mercy upon us.


When we photograph our food

As an instagram-endowed people, capturing every beautiful moment of life in pixelation is part of the way that we make meaning in this world. We morph the images with filters and cropping, casting an instantaneous nostalgic sheen on the moment as it is happening. Our desire for belonging and beauty is constrained and distorted until it squares-up with the pre-imposed proportions of a tiny screen.

This phenomena and its absurdity is profoundly evident in our desire to photograph our food from this angle, with that filter, with the drizzle of sauce and a fork perched on the side of the plate. All this so that our faithful friends and following might know that what we eat looks as good as it tastes. All that while knowing that your animal-style burger from everyone's favorite West Coast chain is only a teensy bit less uninteresting than tomato plant flowers.

But this is not the wail of an uninterested and still complicit social media user, this is the wail against the injustices of which I am quite guilty.

When we photograph our food and declare it's greatness into the cyber-abyss, we lose sight of food's primary purpose in our lives--creative sustenance. Food becomes an object of our ego and not of nourishment. Food becomes about our individual greatness and not about the planet and the people that made the nourishment possible. The act of eating food is not only intrinsic to our body's survival, but it is a declaration of dependency on fertile soil, farming hands, and skillful kitchen work. The act of photographing food deadens our hearts to the nourishing and communal activity of growing, making, and eating it. It removes food's creative and sustaining qualities and morphs it unto yet another distorted device of exerting our wealth and privilege.

Access to nourishing food is not a given in our world. Hunger and malnourishment is a reality on our planet, in our country, in our communities. The privilege of copious consumption is to be confessed and not to be flaunted. Food is to be shared in the flesh, passing the plates and casserole dishes around the table, not on the screen, as a scrolling image of roasted vegetables and grilled meats. Food is the simplest way to nourish another person, to bring meaning and purpose to your relationship with them.

Food is the means by which God continues declare Jesus is enfleshed in this world, nourishing the people. When photographed, the body of Christ appears simply to be bread, no filter or accoutrement can morph it to appear otherwise. But when passed from one hand to another, the bread is the body of Christ, nourishing hearts, minds and souls so that they the nourished will go and do the nourishing--one weeding and water, one inevitably messing baking session, one meal at a time.

No photograph can ever do that.


Beauty Pageants in Wartime

“Be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things.” Joel 2:21

There are times when I read those words in the midst of great sorrow and I wonder who are these rejoicing people? Who are the people of God who feel as though ‘great things’ have been done? Can they not see my brothers who are suspected of crime simply because of their skin color? Can they not see my sisters who struggle to feed their children while working tirelessly at low-paying jobs? Can they not see our mothers wrenched in grief at the loss of their children to harrows of war? Can they not see our fathers demeaned and discouraged at the loss of meaningful work? Can they not see our neighbors and friends spatting endlessly? Where is God in the midst of this crazy mucked–up world? Why would I rejoice?

Between the years of 1992-1996, the city of Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina was decimated by years of warfare and siege. The people who managed to survive the fight and live in the city lost access to water, electricity, gas, and public transportation. In 1993, in the midst of this unimaginable anguish, people of the city gathered in a basement, avoiding sniper fire and held the Miss Sarajevo beauty pageant. Participants carried banners that read “Don’t let them kill us.”

Beauty pageants in wartime seem futile and silly. But in 1993 in Sarajevo, the Miss Sarajevo beauty pageant was a gathering of hearts and minds in resistance against the evils and anguish of war. It was a moment to celebrate the gift of beauty and life and to remember that life is not mere survival. Taking time to celebrate life told the world that the people of Sarajevo were not giving up.

Imagining life in Sarajevo in 1993 is next to impossible for me, but the wreckage of life isn’t far from my doorstep. Sometimes, the holiday season doesn’t turn my heart towards warm gratefulness, but towards embittered pain. Rockwellian images of peaceful tables full of turkeys and smiling families remind me that life isn’t as it should be, or what I want it to be. Despite these vast differences, the people of Sarajevo remind me that pain, fear and fighting (whether in war or in our families) is not the final word on life. The prophet Joel, who gave us these words to be glad and rejoice, also gives us these words of the Lord, “You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other.” (Joel 2:27).

God exerts a real and abiding presence in the midst of Israel, proclaiming that death and sorrow and hunger and fear for the future are not the final word. God does not leave His people in pain, but enters into our pain and bears it with us. This isn’t an abstract idea, but a real and living person in Jesus Christ. We can take time in the midst of our lives and our struggle to be glad and to rejoice because we do not struggle alone. Whether Thanksgiving and the impending holiday season is a time of easy rejoicing or wrought struggle, we can peel back the corners of our daily existence and see that there is God with us, Immanuel. And for this God, we lift up our hearts and say a Great Thanksgiving.


This post originally appeared in the Duke Youth Academy Holiday Newsletter. You can read the rest of the newsletter here.



The concluding conversation of one of my courses this semester centered on marks of discipleship. What makes a disciple of Christ? What makes someone a Christian? As informed as a room full of graduate students studying scripture could be, our conversation sat at the brink of mere speculation. Informed speculation, but still just speculation. The mystery of the fate of the rich young ruler, Zacchaeus, the woman who anointed Jesus' feet with her tears, and so many others forced us deeper into scripture, asking what Luke wants us to know about following Christ.

What does it mean to follow Christ in 21st century North America? I am pretty sure that owning one day, 18 hours, 33 minutes and 18 seconds of Christmas music isn't part of Christian discipleship. But I do. I have 36 versions of Silent Night that could play for over 2 hours in consecutive, non-stop Silent Nighting.

It's ridiculous because I don't even like Christmas music that much. I am not one of those nutters that starts playing Christmas music before Thanksgiving and then has to get her fill mid-July because "OMG, it just makes me so happy." I like Christmas music an average amount. Which is to say, I like Advent hymns the most and if Perry Como comes on, I'll probably crank it up. At the same time, I listen to other music in December because I can only take so much sugar in my ears.

And yet, my computer houses a lot of Christmas music. The majority of it lauding the coming Savior's birth who will radically change the world, bringing peace and making all things new. Apparently, my consumption of audible bytes stands outside of this newness. I'm fairly certain the song I've listened to the most in this engorged collection of holiday tunes, Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), drives a muted, subtle, and dulling wedge between my heart and the Lord who came into this fierce and wild world to save all of us. I stand convicted of my own ideation of discipleship, a rich young ruler believing herself to be a follower of the law but cannot sell all of her things, turn away from her commercialized Baby Jesusware and follow Christ.

I don't even know how to follow up that paragraph without relativizing the seriousness of the situation.

Lord, have mercy.