A response, of sorts, to RJH’s post. This is the text of the end of my ward’s Christmas program from last year. The program was scheduled just two days after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and we were all sick and stunned. I still think it’s too glib a response–it’s too easy to love the idea of vulnerability from a safe distance. And yet, and yet…
Now we come to the part of the Christmas story it is usually convenient to skip.
But today we can’t leave it out.
Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men.
17 Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying,
18 In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.
There it is—smack dab in the middle of the Christmas story: the worst horror we can imagine, the senseless death of children. And God doesn’t stop it. Why? Surely Herod could have been smitten by an invading army, or chicken pox…
Everyone was expecting it—the prophets and the singers of psalms, from Miriam, singing “the Lord is a man of war and he hath triumphed gloriously” all the way to Isaiah prophesying that “he shall reign over the house of David forever, and of His Kingdom there shall be no end.” Everybody knows what kings do; everyone knows what power is like, how wars are won—we live in a world where tyranny is common, brutality is a fact of life, and where might makes right.
And God, the mightiest of all, able to change the courses of the stars, did not make it right. At least not in a way we could recognize. His answer was—of all things—a baby. A baby born in poverty and filth, a child of people who had known only oppressive occupation and ruthless exploitation by foreign powers, the apparently illegitimate son of a carpenter. A baby who would be carried out into the wilderness at night, in danger and fear, with the sound of weeping at his back.
And this is God’s gift, and God’s answer to the terrible questions raised by pain and evil. A baby. Have you looked at a baby lately? Spent time with one? I love babies, but they are entirely unsatisfactory as either a practical or philosophical solution to the problems of the world. In empirical, objective terms, they’re just not very impressive. They’re usually a little red and squishy-looking, they smell kinda funky sometimes, and all they really do is eat and poop and cry (and sleep, if you’re lucky). They are deceptively cute bundles of raw, helpless neediness. It’s no wonder, really, that we’ve grafted our celebration of Christ’s birth to a pagan holiday with a little more pomp—we want to think we’re a little grander than the shepherds, a little smarter than the wise men, at least prettier than the goats…There must be something more to Christmas than this scene in the stable. But the constant message of the infant Christ is that, truly, this is all there is. For all our overdeveloped cerebral cortexes, we, too, are creatures—born in bloody agony into a world where what we will crave most, and spend our lives pursuing, is food, and a warm place to sleep, and the gentle touch of someone who loves us for no good reason. The infant Christ, the Prince of Peace, does not blow the trumpet and call us to ride forth in glorious battle; he does not show us the way to palaces where we can live free from want and pain; he does not even save us from Herod’s monstrous evil. He comes, instead, to teach us how to be vulnerable, how to have our hearts broken and then knit together in love.
His gift is in the name “Emmanuel”—God with us. The promise of Christmas is that God is with us, in our joy, in our suffering, and that because he descended to become like us, we can become like him. Our small acts of goodness can be part of the divine plan to save the world, and our own cries will call forth the godly compassion of our fellow beings. Like Jesus, we will be small and helpless and vulnerable. Like Mary birthing him, we will hurt and suffer. Like Joseph, we will be perplexed by God’s working in our lives, be invited to participate in miracles we do not understand. Like the shepherds, we will be amazed and afraid. Like the wise men, we will inadvertently cause great suffering despite our best intentions. And in and through and below all of this, God promises to be with us—and to make our suffering redemptive, as His was, to increase our capacity for love and joy as sorrow carves out space in our souls. The miracle of that strange, wondrous tableau in the stable is that if we seek the shelter of each other, if we attend to the singing of angels and the cries of infants, if we learn to honor the divinity of the smallest and weakest among us, we will find Christ and know our kinship with Him—“when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is;”
In Robert Herrick’s lovely Christmas Carroll:
We see Him come, and know Him ours,
Who, with His sunshine, and His showers,
Turns all the patient ground to flowers.
The darling of the world is come,
And fit it is, we find a room
To welcome Him. The nobler part
Of all the house here, is the heart…
By his birth in the stable, and his atoning sacrifice, Christ invites us to “know Him ours” and promises to “set [us] as a seal upon [his] heart”—he extends to us a covenant of belonging. And in that covenant, of belonging to Christ and to each other, our griefs will be lightened and our joys multiplied. We will be partakers in God’s love—the fathomless and infinite love that came down to earth at Christmas.
“Wherefore, my beloved sisters and brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the children of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure.”