“Again.” That was the headline the next day in The Denver Post. I first found out from a text message from my wife: “Shooting at Arapahoe High School.” I froze, and then checked the nearest TV screen at the rec center. For Colorado, it was an all too familiar scene. Students running out of a building led by a black-armored SWAT Team. Mothers embracing their children in tears. Disbelief hanging on the faces of teenage boys.
Except this time it was different – my own cousin was in the building that day. She heard the shots – “like somebody had dropped a big pan.” She hid in her classroom, and trembled when somebody shook the doorknob. On Friday, December 13, 2013, an unwelcome cloud eclipsed the sun, and Colorado was overshadowed by a familiar darkness.
Long ago, Mary could well identify with such darkness. Living under Roman occupation, Israel was captive to a foreign power, mourning in a “exile” from home, from justice, from the long-awaited Messiah. From a “suburban,” lower-income family, subject to larger cultural tides and winds, she was small, and powerless to change her world.
Yet Israel had a glimmer of hope. Maybe as a young girl she read on her daddy’s lap the prophecy, written long ago: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” But what light could there be amidst such pain and suffering?
One dark night, light spilled into Mary’s room. “Rejoice, you who are highly favored,” announced the angel Gabriel. “The Lord is with you.” An odd thing to say to a teenager in such a circumstance. Rejoice. She had good reason to be “greatly troubled.” What announcement could bring joy for her people, so accustomed to suffering?
“You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus,” the angel declared. “He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High. The Lord will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
For centuries, Christians have looked to that teenage mother, and her baby boy, and described Advent with that brief, luminescent word: joy. “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.” “O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy.” “Joyful all ye nations rise, join the triumph of the skies.” “O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.” Joy perhaps isn’t what Joseph was thinking that first Christmas, as he helped his fiancée recover and care for a newborn between the snorting of cattle and the dull bleating of sheep. But the light of heaven beamed from that grotto, nonetheless – God arrived in the midst of the confusion.
Yet it was joy, not despair, grumbling or lesser pleasures, that welled up in Mary’s heart (Luke 1:47). She had joy in all the everydayness of life – work, worship, cleaning the dishes. Even under the thumb of oppression, she fell on her bed, and perhaps hummed the words of Isaiah: “They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.” Or maybe Mary’s deepest happiness came simply from the angel’s first words “The Lord is with you.” Emmanuel, God with Us.
And God is not far from us today. He is not far from Arapahoe High School, or the mourning parents of 17 year-old Claire Davis, who recently lost her battle for life in the hospital. He is not far from us when we experience crushing career disappointments. He is not far from our Christmas celebrations, too often laced with family tension. God, the Almighty One, has come to be with us, even as we are.
As Colorado suffers once again, this Christmas, we can cling to Him who “disperses the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows puts to flight.” Since we, along with Zechariah, have seen “a rising sun coming to us from heaven,” we can join the song of Mary and rejoice in God our Savior. Because in the distance we can still hear the echoes of angels, singing the praises of the Lamb, who will one day wipe every tear from our eyes.