Tomorrow is Christmas, and as a friend said to me recently, it’s poised to be a decidedly minor key holiday. In the past few months we have mourned the tragic deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. Now we grieve the loss of two New York City Police officers, whose murder has been co-opted by talking heads and exploited to justify more partisan bickering.
While this Christmas seems unusually shrouded in tragedy, I am keenly aware that many of us normally experience a heightened sense of anxiety and depression during this season. It’s all too obvious that a holiday celebrating life and peace naturally exposes the places where death and alienation still reign supreme.
But how can this be? How can racism and injustice and death survive in the presence of a God who promises to have conquered it all?
My fiancé —whose faith never fails to astound me— says the evil we see at work in the world and experience in our lives is in its death throes, violently thrashing around, destroying anything it can grasp as it heads towards an imminent and final destruction.
I presume this has something to do with what the Apostle Paul calls the “already-not-yet” dimension of our age. Death has been conquered, swallowed up by the extravagant reconciling love of God, and yet we feel its lingering sting. Which makes me wonder whether Christmas should be about anticipating the arrival of the Christ child — who we proclaim has already come—or about ecstatically proclaiming the incoming reign of love, joy, and peace his birth inaugurated. Instead of trying to endlessly re-incarnate Jesus every 25th of December, perhaps we should approach Christmas with a forward facing orientation that seeks to embody incarnational love. A love that anticipates a world where there is no more death or sorrow or crying or pain… The birth of something new.
At my church we like to end our Christmas Eve services with “Silent Night,” a hymn that portrays childbirth like a day at the spa — all is calm, all is bright, all smells of relaxing oils and sounds of Enya. Because it’s our candlelight service and I am supposed be reverent as I meditate on the amazingly well-behaved baby Jesus, I try to refrain from giggling. But usually it’s at this exact that moment that I am reminded of a scene from Gilmore Girls: a show about a woman (Lorelei) who gives birth at sixteen to a daughter (Rory). Every 8th of October at 4:03am, the exact date and time of her birth, Lorelei wakes Rory up to recount the story of her birth:
“It’s hard to believe that at exactly this time, many moons ago, I was lying in exactly this position; only I had a huge fat stomach, and big fat ankles, and I was swearing like sailor on leave. And there I was, in labor, and while some have called it the most meaningful experience of your life, to me it was more akin to doing the splits on a crate of dynamite. And I was screaming and swearing, and being surrounded as I was by a hundred prominent doctors, I just assumed there was an actual use for the cup of ice chips they gave me — there wasn’t. But pelting the nurses sure was fun…” (Gilmore Girls, Season 1 Episode 6)
This more accurate account of what it is like to have a baby reminds me that birth involves a considerable amount of pain and discomfort. And so it is understandable that like the birth God’s son, the birth of love’s new order would entail some suffering.
May the knowledge that evil is in its death throes, and that a kingdom of justice is coming into the world, be enough to sustain hope in the midst of this injustice. But in those times when it is not enough, may we still step out in faith to pray O Come O Come Emmanuel. And should our groanings drown out the songs of Christmas, may He become truly present with us once again and comfort our broken hearts.