It is impossible to comprehend the grief, shock, pain and anguish felt by the families and loved ones of those who have lost children in the unspeakable school massacre at Newtown in Connecticut. That such a horrific event could take place just a few days before Christmas, in the season of 'peace on earth and goodwill to all men', only compounds our lack of comprehension. How can one make sense of such tragedy? What can one say to those who have been so suddenly and heartbreakingly bereaved?
The temptation for many Christians is to respond with words. Words that explain that God is not responsible or to be blamed; words that point out that when the mention of God is removed from every American school syllabus then these are the inevitable consequences; words that seek to explain the mystery of evil in the world; words that argue for increased gun control; words that seek to explain how God can bring good out of evil; words that ruefully bemoan the moral disintegration and cultural dysfunctionality of western civilisation that has rejected God; words that do little to reach those people whose pain is beyond words. One tweet I read yesterday was offering money to a Christian preacher "if he would allow us to grieve one tragedy without jumping to explain the mind of God for us".
At least President Obama has himself shown the sensitivity to recognise that "mere words cannot match the depths of your sorrow, nor can they heal your wounded hearts". At the Prayer Vigil in Newtown he proceeded simply to quote the comforting biblical words from 2 Corinthians 4 and 5, referring also to Jesus saying "let the little children come to me". In so doing, he exemplified the wisdom spoken of in Ecclesiastes 5:2, "Do not be quick with your mouth … God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few".
Christians love to debate the authenticity or otherwise of President Obama's faith, but clearly the President got it right here. It is better simply to use the words of Scripture and let those Spirit-inspired phrases do their work, rather than trot out platitudes that inflame rather than soothe people's grief. Only the language of the Bible has an ability to give us the words to speak in times when words would otherwise fail us and those we seek to minister to.
It is perhaps significant that one part of the Christmas story that is completely ignored in most Christmas celebrations is the massacre of the innocent children by King Herod, recorded in Matthew's Gospel. Matthew quotes the words of Jeremiah: "A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more" (Matthew 2:18). Words are not adequate to console the inconsolable. The truth is, we don't know how to handle tragedy, especially at Christmas, when everyone is supposed to be jolly and full of fun. Our Christmas carols and readings make no mention of this part of the story, and yet it is a part of the story that many people each Christmas can identify with – there is a loss, a tragedy, an unbearable pain that has struck their lives, which they struggle to cope with. It is in the midst of this great tragedy that Christ came into the world.
On occasions like that which we have seen in Newtown, we simply need to grieve with those who grieve. But the fact that it is Christmas is a comforting reminder that the coming of Christ into this dark world was for the very purpose of rescuing us from the pain and suffering of human sin. And yet the cost was something that entailed an equally unbearable tragedy. Jesus' mother Mary had to witness what no parent ever anticipates – their own child dying in front of their eyes. God the Father had to turn his face away as His own Son died a brutal and seemingly senseless death. Make no mistake, God knows what it's like. And through the pain of that horrendous murder, for us all, is offered the hope spoken of in the carol "Mary's Boy-Child" – "that man may live forever more, because of Christmas Day". My prayer is that the bereaved families will by faith grasp that eternal hope in the days and weeks ahead.
Tony Ward is a Bible teacher and evangelist who was ordained in Zimbabwe. He ministers mainly in Cardiff and Bristol.