When the problem of evil intrudes on Christmas joy

Maybe because the playing out of Christmas traditions in the home and liturgies in the parish is such a magical and joyful time, especially when you have young kids, the intrusion of the fact of evil in the world is so existentially disturbing.

This year, it happened in our own neighborhood. A 9-year-old girl went missing in a trailer park within miles of our house. She and her 6-year-old sisters had been left with a 39-year-old male neighbor (who it turns out had a rap sheet for violent crime) while their mother recovered from a flu. Throughout Christmas weekend, police and volunteers turned out with police dogs and search parties to look for the little girl, without any initial luck. My wife was particularly affected by her disappearance, and spent most of Christmas Sunday afternoon lying on our bathroom floor in the throes of a violent stomach flu, praying for the little girl’s safe return.

Late Monday night, however, police announced they had found the little girl’s body, and had arrested the male baby sitter. Refusing immediately to give details about the condition of her body, a police spokesman said, “It was a horrific crime, probably worse than you can imagine.”

My wife was devastated. How can you reconcile the awful suffering of such a little one with what we’ve just celebrated: that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son for us, as a little baby in a manger in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago?

In one sense, the presence of evil should be even more disturbing for Christians precisely because it is so dissonant with God’s love. But that is no consolation, neither for those innocents who suffer it, nor for those who helplessly witness it.

My wife found some strength in Pope Benedict XVI’s homily for Christmas midnight Mass this year, which touched on this very problem.

For people in pre-Christian times, he said, the “terrors and contradictions” of the world could make them think that God, too, might be “cruel and arbitrary.”

But with his sending of his son as a child — weak, needy and dependent, “in the position of asking for human love — our love” — he shows us first the depth of his love for us, and also indicates a model of humility and simplicity to adopt in the face of evil.

“God has appeared — as a child,” the pope said. “It is in this guise that he pits himself against all violence and brings a message that is peace. ... We cry out to the Lord: O mighty God, you have appeared as a child and you have revealed yourself to us as the One who loves us, the One through whom love will triumph. And you have shown us that we must be peacemakers with you. We love your childish estate, your powerlessness, but we suffer from the continuing presence of violence in the world, and so we also ask you: manifest your power, O God.”

Amen.

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