In 2007, 4-year-old Ivan Aguilar-Cano disappeared while playing outside his house near Churchill Downs, in Louisville, Kentucky. On Friday, December 17, 2010, Cecil New, who had pled guilty to abducting Ivan, plying him with alcohol, and sexually abusing him before killing him and putting his body in a dumpster, was sentenced to life in prison without parole. In passing sentence, Judge Judith McDonald-Burkman stated, “Death is undoubtedly justified for you. . . . There's not one cell in your body, Cecil New, that can be rehabilitated, not one. But is a death sentence justice?” She added that she hoped, “This sentence pales in comparison to what you will receive ultimately from up above” (Quotes from the Courier-Journal, December 17, 2010). Given the heinous nature of Mr. New’s crime, such comments are understandable; but they ought not to come from the bench; and they certainly fly in the face of all that the Christ whose birth is celebrated at Christmas teaches us.
Matthew’s gospel proclaims the child born in Bethlehem to be Emmanuel—“which, being interpreted, is God with us” (1:23 KJV). The grown-up Jesus called on us to love our enemies (5:43ff) . . . he bade all who were burdened to come unto him and there find rest (11:28-30). The God revealed in Jesus the Christ is a God who believes that redemption is in reach of all people and who desires that none should perish.
Isaiah wrote, “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined” (Isaiah 9:2 KJV). Christians have long seen in Isaiah’s word a foreshadowing, if not a foretelling, of the Messiah’s birth. Christmas is the story of the Light having dawned, of God having come to be with us. Crimes, heinous ones like that committed by Mr. New and the less heinous committed by many others, should not and do not go unpunished. Wherever the Light shines, crimes great and small cannot stay hidden. I wonder sometimes if our harsh punishment of the crimes of others is in part an effort to hide our own crimes. We do well to remember that in God’s economy, punishment’s aim is redemption and rehabilitation. Whatever punishment society may choose to inflict on those judged guilty should never preclude the possibility of redemption and rehabilitation.
I am not soft on crime; but neither am I soft on the sin, the perpetrator’s or mine, that often lies beneath the surface of crimes committed. What, I wonder, is there in society and in the hearts of men and women that leads to the sexual abuse and killing of children? I confess to having no clue beyond sin. I don’t understand it . . . cannot fathom it.
The heinous nature of Mr. New’s crime, the understandable but most unchristian response of the judge, and my inability to understand how we as God’s creation can fall to such depths would leave me in despair were it not for the Light that has dawned.
Christmas brings the good news that sinners like Cecil New and like you and me can be redeemed . . . are in fact being redeemed. The Bread and the Cup of Communion, so often received in the Christmas season, are reminders of redemption’s price. We who have such a priceless gift ought never to deny it to others.
Halleluiah! A Child is born and He is Emmanuel.