those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” (Is. 9:2)
This time of year evokes a holiday wrapped in sparkling light, with warm fires, plentiful feasts and abundant presents. Every detail is familiar to us: we know all the carols by heart; family traditions vary little from year to year; and the treasured household decorations are brought out year after year.
Yet in spite of its familiarity, Christmas centers on something actually quite strange: the nativity story itself. Indeed, the gospel narratives go out of their way to insist on the strangeness of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. Mary and Joseph each receive mysterious visitors who inform them of their new uncanny roles. Angels appear to unsuspecting shepherds. Following an abnormally brilliant star, Wise Men arrive from the mythical East to pay homage. So contrary to the almost unanimous depiction by the carols of Jesus as a babe “meek and mild,” what the gospels actually present to us is Christ as a stranger—someone who is entirely outside of our normal expectations in every way.
So what are the gospels trying to get us to understand, with this insistence on the strangeness of the nativity? Well, we might pay close attention to the overt theme of isolation and marginalization that is evoked throughout the story. Mary and Joseph travel alone to Bethlehem—and there find only a cattle stall as shelter. For the birth itself there is only the mother, father, and child—no one to lend help or support. Indeed, as the gospels tell it, the surrounding world is especially cold and indifferent to their plight. As the poet John Clare put it,
A stranger once didst bless the earth who never caused a heart to mourn,
Whose very voice gave sorrow mirth; and how did earth his worth return?
It spurned him from its lowliest lot: the meanest station owned him not.[*]
This isolation will follow Jesus throughout his life. As he begins his ministry, he will describe himself as the Son of Man who has nowhere to lay his head. He will be driven by the Spirit into the desert to wrestle with Satan. And most significantly, Jesus will be utterly alone as he faces his own death. On the night of his arrest Jesus goes to Gethsemane to pray, as his disciples stay sleepily behind. Like the stable of his birth, Gethsemane is a place of isolation, separation, and solitude—and it leads Jesus the following day to Golgotha, where dying on the cross his lament is that even God has abandoned him.
Yet it is in the loneliness and isolation of these moments that Jesus time after time recommits himself to the work that God has given him to do. What we see in him, therefore, is the paradox that God’s grace is most powerfully at work, where God is also most hidden: whether in the lonely shadows of the stable of Bethlehem, or the solitude of Gethsemane, or the cross of Golgotha. Ironically, we learn through Jesus that when the world is most unaware of or indifferent to God, it is at that moment that God will show himself most powerfully to be utterly committed to the world.[†]
God, you see, is unlike us, in that the more desperate things become, the more God is present. By contrast, the instinct which drives us is to seek safety and security in reaction to adversity, and so we draw back from whatever we find strange or threatening—the refugee, the foreigner, the conservative or liberal, the non-Christian. As a culture we have become caught in just such a reactive pattern, hunkering down within the familiarity of our own thoughts and ways. But the Christmas story reminds us that Jesus himself is a stranger, who shows us that God stakes his loyalty and commitment to the world not in spite of such risks, but because of them. This is the conviction to which the prophets of our time have consistently born witness, whether it was Dorothy Day among the poor of New York, or Martin Luther King on the streets of Selma, or Mother Theresa in the slums of Calcutta. Their confidence was in their conviction that God would be present even in the worst of circumstances—and especially in the worst of circumstances—which gave them the courage to persevere where many of us would have quit. As the prophet Isaiah promised in tonight’s lesson, God shines a great light on those who live in a land of deep darkness.
And perhaps this is the true strangeness of Christmas: that in a world suffused in darkness and human need, a God of light and love should stake his claim of love within it in human form, without limit or reservation, choosing to meet us in the darkest and most lonely places of our lives. As Christina Rossetti’s hymn puts it, “Love came down at Christmas, love all lovely, love divine; love to God and neighbor, love for plea and gift and sign.”[‡] We have good reason, then, to have confidence that in the end, nothing can separate us from the sustaining grace of that love, no matter how threatening or violent or grim the situation may be. For in Christ, God has staked his claim with us, and with that assurance we have every reason to take heart and to live lives full of hope and expectation.
So within the recurring refrain of joy and gladness that we hear in the carols we sing this time of year, we should also hear a refrain of courage: courage to see and to engage the world as God does, courage to be confident that despite our world’s violence and corruption, it is still worthy of our greatest resolve and sacrifice, because it was worth God’s greatest resolve and sacrifice. If we make that commitment, then the tidings of this night are indeed glad. For knowing that God meets us where life is at its darkest, empowering us to transform it, is all we really need in order to have the courage to pursue life at its best.
© Joseph Britton, 2015
[*] John Clare, “A stranger once didst bless the earth,” Songs for Liturgy and More Hymns & Spiritual Songs (Walton Music, 1971), Hymn H-56.
[†] Benjamin Myers, Christ the Stranger: The Theology of Rowan Williams (T&T Clark, 2012), 27.
[‡] Christina Rossetti, “Love came down at Christmas,” Hymnal 1982, #84.