At some point, I must have thought to myself, You know what would be a great idea? Listening to an audiobook about the Holocaust on my 10-hour solo drive from Indiana to Minnesota.
This is a perfectly fine plan.
Except for the fact that you can’t really explain to the attendant on the Chicago toll road why you are weeping as you hand him two rumpled dollar bills.
Or that halfway through Wisconsin you just want to call all your family members and tell them you love them and would never abandon them to die alone.
Or that as the temperature slowly creeps from a sunny 55 to a dark and frigid 8 degrees, you get to the part about thousands of Jews freezing to death in a forced march across Germany to escape the liberation. And you feel cold. So cold.
Other than that, there is nothing wrong with listening to Night by Elie Wiesel on a car trip by yourself. I highly recommend it.
Once I finished the novel, I put in a Christmas CD.
I didn’t do this to drown out the story I had just heard or the emotions it brought to the surface. In fact, I took a time of silence in between the two. Sometimes, I think, we’re too quick to jump to noise to distract us from grief.
I did it because I can believe both that people are capable of brutal atrocities and that there is still hope. That God is at times silent, and that silence is terrible—and that the sound of the first cries of a baby in Bethlehem is the only necessary answer to that silence.
I can hold both struggling opposites together by sheer force of will and faith. I can love people and hate what we do to each other. I can mourn and celebrate.
I have to. That is the world we live in.
When I put in the Christmas CD, every track reminded me of the horrors I had just read about. Sleigh bells? The constant regulation of every aspect of life in the concentration camp that made the narrator dream of “a life without bells.”
The star of Bethlehem? A man assuring his son the yellow stars of David were harmless and “not lethal,” to which the son, looking back, wondered, “What, then, killed you, Father?”
A violin solo? The orchestra musician who played a Beethoven concerto to a room full of the dead and dying, then died himself the next day, trampled and starved and frozen.
I skipped the tracks one by one, blinking back tears. And then, finally, because God has mercy on a twenty-something on a road trip whose heart is breaking, I rested on one, one that’s been my favorite for a very long time.
When I was a kid in children’s choir, I remember a Christmas song—some kitschy little number about not knowing what song to bring to Bethlehem to give to Jesus.
I’m older now. And I’ve realized, I know lots of songs I can bring to Bethlehem.
I only know one I can bring to Auschwitz.
Let’s take a look at the vocabulary list from this particular version: Mourn. Lonely. Exile. Gloomy. Death’s dark shadow. Suffering. Pain. Sorrow.
This, my friends, is not your typical peace-and-joy Christmas carol. It sounds like a funeral march, the journey into Mordor…or the appropriate response to a world where genocide happens. Where genocide happens and it is made up of people with names and face, hopes and dreams.
The call to “Rejoice! Rejoice!” is set in a minor key. That, I think, is what makes it beautiful. That is paradox, the courage to hold the two opposite things in tension. We need more of that, I think.
Don’t turn away from sadness and suffering without fully feeling it. Don’t deflect it with Christian phrases like “It will all work out for good,” pasting over your lament with a cheerful smile. Don’t try to make evil good, or even not so bad.
But don’t become so cynical that you scoff at the idea of hope. Don’t forget that we were not meant for this broken world filled with fallen people and twisted minds and shattered dreams. Don’t try to make God evil just because evil exists.
There’s another place besides “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” where brokenness and beauty are held together. It’s in my favorite version of the Christmas story in John 1: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
Tomorrow, there will be a happy blog post, one that is full of ridiculous overstatement and silly jokes and pictures that only somewhat relate to the topic at hand.
But for now, I need time to mourn. I need Night and Good Friday and Ecclesiastes and songs in a minor key.
I need a God who came down among us and wept and suffered and was abandoned and died, because it makes sense of all our weeping and suffering and abandonment and death. It is the only thing that can.