Joy. We are about to enter a Season of Joy known as Christmastide. Advent has warmed our hearts with eager anticipation. Now, the birth of Emmanuel, “God With Us”, is nigh. The insatiable hunger of generations of prophets and peoples is about to be fulfilled in the form of a precious and trembling baby boy resting in a feed trough. It is an entry into History with such a poignancy that it irrefutably proves that our God is a poet. A sweet, sweet Poet. And yet, something is not quite right. In this season of awe – a time of immeasurable wonder and joy – there must be a reason I feel a touch unsettled. Perhaps it is that even in this idyllic scene of the Christ-child arriving surrounded by a loving yet motley crew is the grim foreshadowing of Good Friday. In the midst of the candles and carols, the food and the fellowship, it is essential that we take time to wrestle with the simple, yet profound question, “What did Christ’s entry into History truly mean?”. Well, if you’ll indulge me for a moment…
Beginning in the late summer of 1940, Great Britain was enshrouded in darkness. Adolf Hitler and his Nazi juggernaut had brutalized and occupied one free European country after another. It was now Great Britain’s turn. In advance of a proposed Nazi invasion, the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) relentlessly bombed British cities, air strips and manufacturing plants in advance of a proposed Nazi invasion (for more on “The Few” who miraculously repelled the Nazi onslaught, please see my previous post here). During this time of trial the jowly and determined British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was defiant. The British people, he reminded in passionate speeches, are made of stern stuff and are resolved to live full and free or die to secure their dignified liberty. But this rhetoric was not empty. It was informed by firsthand experience with the ravages that the Nazi war machine would deliver.
After the wicked destruction wrought by Luftwaffe bombers, Winston Churchill made a point of visiting the bombed-out sites. Trudging through treacherous and smoking ruins, this man symbolizing rock-jawed hope and defiance would be mobbed by suffering well-wishers. Cries would erupt,
“Good old Winnie! We thought you’d come and see us!”
“Stick it, Winnie! We can take it!”
Especially moving was Simon Schama’s description of Churchill in the eyes of the broken,
“When the prime minister toured the scorched and shattered remains of Bristol after a particularly hellish air raid in April 1941, a woman who had lost everything and was awash with raging tears, on seeing the jowly face and cigar, stopped crying and waved her hanky, shouting herself hoarse, ‘Hooray, hooray!'”.
Overwhelmed at times by the Phoenix-like spirit of a people so crushed, Churchill was often moved to silence and tears. And from these experiences, his message emerged. The fierce, eloquent defiance of tyranny and the unshakeable advocacy for the dignity of man were, after all, borne of anguish. In coming to the burnt shells of community after community, Churchill had come to be with his people. He had come to suffer with them.
Now, while I greatly admire Churchill, I assure you that I am not lobbying for his equality with the Almighty. But perhaps a small, anecdotal parallel can be made. During Christmas, I think it is God’s willingness to enter into History that gives me a grateful, yet somewhat anguished pause. It is an act of utterly incomprehensible love. However, the Beauty in the moment of His arrival is also tinged with anticipation of the suffering to come. I imagine that deep in the eyes and hearts of shepherds and magi, Mary and Joseph was a love so great for this Strange Yet Glorious One and yet a penetrating ache for the unknown suffering that humanity was capable of inflicting on Him. It would, after all, be the old and devout Simeon who would put this into words when he assured Mary, days into her motherhood, that a sword would pierce her soul.
Yes, for me there is a paradoxical pain that accompanies the joy of Christmas. For in becoming One of us, God decided to walk among the burnt shells of community after community, to be moved by a crushed people to silence and tears, and to speak lovingly yet fiercely against Tyranny and in advocacy for the Dignity of man. For this babe, this sweet, vulnerable babe had come to be with His people. He had come to suffer with us. He has come to suffer for us. It is a redemptive, liberating suffering that promises us joy. Indeed. A sweet, unparalleled Joy to the World.