In 1940, Sergei Prokofiev shook the world with his ballet adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Prokofiev, an accomplished composer and artist, brought many new elements to his rendition of Romeo and Juliet. However, he stirred a great deal of controversy when he gave this well-known tragedy a happy ending. Audiences were appalled at the idea.
Since 1597 people have watched Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers play out their calamity. Across the world, audiences know that the show they are about to watch is going to end in the most tragic of circumstances. If someone were to arrive unaware, the narrator lays out the ending in the opening lines of the prologue. To paraphrase, the narrator tells us, “Welcome to our show. They die in the end. Enjoy the story.” But why do we still listen to the story when we know the disastrous results?
I have a hunch that it is because none of us are immune from tragedy. We live in a fallen world racked by the effects of sin. Everywhere we turn we can see brokenness and decay. But we long for something more. We enter stories of tragedy in hopes that they will turn out differently. But as Prokofiev learned, we still want to know that someone else knows our pain.
To sing a sad song, to tell a tragic story—as if it might end differently this time—is an exercise in both mourning and hope. We mourn for what was and what is. And we hope for what could be. We long for something more. We long for the world to be the way that it could be, not just the way it is.
The Scriptures tell us that God is making all things new. The Spirit is at work to restore things as revealed in the Revelation of John. This is exemplified in Jesus Christ. The gospel’s message is that we do, in fact, have someone who knows our pain. There is no temptation, no sorrow, known to humanity that Jesus himself does not know.
Believe it or not, Advent and Christmas are perfect occasions to remember that we live in tragedy. The first Christmas was full of lament. Mary and Joseph faced the difficulty of their plight. The people of Israel were under occupied rule. People longed for their deliverance. The fact that Jesus enters the world in such a state proves at an even deeper level that he is no stranger to any difficulty we face. The baby born in the manger knew that the tragedy of the cross was to come. He also knew the victory over all of life’s tragedies that would come through the resurrection.
We are still journeying through tragedies. Justice is denied to those who deserve it. The innocents suffer at no fault of their own. Exiles long for home. In our modern Christmas commemorations, we sing this in the well-known carol, “O Come, O Come, Immanuel.” We desire that God would hear our cries and know our struggles.
Evangelism with honesty and integrity admits this reality. There is no need to gloss over the pain; there’s plenty to go around. However, we can also acknowledge that there is more to life than the pain we see now. As the words of that hymn remind us, we can sing for what we long for:
O come, O Bright and Morning Star,
and bring us comfort from afar!
Dispel the shadows of the night
and turn our darkness into light.
This is an Advent Season like no other. People around the world, and around your community, are living through some tragic situations. Maybe you are going through one yourself. Unlike a Shakespearean tragedy, the message of Christmas is that Christ has conquered all the tragedies we may endure. Through the comforting presence of the Holy Spirit, may this truth bring us peace in whatever difficulties we may face.