If the Christmas season typically consists of a frantic race to buy presents, hit sales, and max out one’s credit card, the events of last week have exposed, if only for a time, not only the relative folly of materialism in practice, but also the bankruptcy of the materialist philosophy.
Philosophical or “scientific” materialism holds that the only reality is material – that which can be measured, tested, or observed. It is a view that has gained ground culturally in the last decade, spurred on by champions such as Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and others, who have argued that science has essentially replaced metaphysics, philosophy, and theology as the only explanatory tool needed to understand man, life, the universe, and indeed, everything.
But it seems insufficient to describe, much less explain or respond to what happened in Newtown.
Perhaps the two greatest counterpoints to philosophic materialism are the hard-to-deny spiritual realities of evil and love. Both were in sharp focus last week. A great and deeply unnatural evil was done, and a terrible grief imposed upon dozens of young families.
But the other great spiritual reality that stood in stark relief was that of love. It was love that prompted the school principal and counselor, two unarmed women, to sprint towards lethal confrontation with a gunman. The anguished love of grieving parents is painful even to imagine. And the best of responses to the evil that has occurred has been simply the outpouring of love to those in pain, to stand with them in suffering, to let them know that they are not alone.
Two thousand years ago, Love itself came into the world in material, human form. Jesus was born into a place and time beset by evils just as great as our own. In his own hometown, the local king ordered the killing of neighborhood toddlers to secure his own ambitions. Violence was frequent, and his own pre-ordained death was as gruesome as they come. And at the time of Christ’s death, like this Christmas in Connecticut, it seemed like evil had triumphed – and that death and darkness had their way. And in a material sense, they had.
But part of the great hope of Christianity is that Jesus’s coming, his death, and his resurrection turned the natural order of things on its head. He spoke of a “Kingdom of Heaven” that could be realized in part in the material world, but which inverted its rules. He promised that the last should be first, that an abundant life lay apart from power or material wealth, that the love of God and neighbor was the summation of elaborately codified laws. He did not provide easy answers to the great questions of pain and suffering. But he did offer, through his own life, death, and resurrection, a promise, and a hope: that ultimately, Love triumphs over evil, and that it is the strongest of all realities, even overcoming death.
It is the hope that the Advent season anticipates and celebrates each year: that in the midst of our struggles, even in days as dark as this December in Connecticut, there are “glad tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people: for unto us this day is born in the city of Bethlehem, a savior, who is Christ the Lord…. And He shall wipe away all tears from their eyes, and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, for the old things are all passed away.” Come, thou long-expected Jesus!