2020 has been an extremely difficult year.
The coronavirus pandemic has taken around 1.67 million lives. Some of my dearest friends have lost their parents to the disease. Perhaps you or people you know have lost loved ones. We have all felt the ache of ambient stress, lost rhythms, loneliness, vulnerability, and uncertainty. The whole world has labored under the heaviness of loss and grief, and we carry this in our bodies.
The United States has seen high-profile police killings of Black Americans (George Floyd among others), nationwide protests, and a rancorous presidential election. The integrity of our democratic values and institutions is being severely questioned. Ethiopia has had high-profile assassinations, horrifying massacres, and a heart-wrenching war. Some 50,000 people have become refugees and 2.3 million children face hunger among other crises.
Polarization has become a feature of our daily lives across the world. It seems that more and more people not only disagree with each other but see each other as enemies locked in existential conflict. A siege mentality spreads with disinformation and conspiracy. Othering identities, insulting language, and threats of violence have been normalized. Too many of our religious leaders have been silent or actively fueled conflict.
Working to bring people together or simply expressing grief for others’ suffering has been politicized. This year I received dozens of death threats as I worked for reconciliation. I’m sure you have your own stories.
In short, 2020 may seem like a year to skip Christmas. Aren’t we all carrying too much pain to celebrate the birth of Jesus?
And yet perhaps 2020 can take us back to the fierce and tender heart of the first Christmas: God wants to be with us in our suffering. The powerless baby we welcome is Emanuel, God with us, a loving presence that embraces us in our pain.
Take a second look:
Violent military occupation is the context of Christmas. Rome has dominated Palestine, and Israel struggles under the suffering, humiliation, and grief of subjugation.
An imperial decree forces Joseph and Mary to go on an arduous journey across country during Mary’s pregnancy.
Mary gives birth to Jesus far from home in an animal shelter. She feels the physical agony of her body being ripped open and the pain of nursing her newborn son in harsh conditions.
Then the egomaniac ruler Herod feels threatened by rumors of a rival king, and he unleashes a massacre on children. The land flows with blood and reverberates with weeping.
And thus Joseph and Mary face that unchosen choice that millions of people in our world never wanted but had to make: they run for their lives with Jesus to Egypt as refugees. For a second time, they leave everything behind but now with an infant in a foreign country where they don’t speak the language and are likely seen as unwanted or even enemies.
Mary and Joseph must have said to themselves, “Can it get any worse? Our country is conquered. We were forced to leave home when we needed security and care most badly. We gave birth with nothing. And now children are being mass-murdered and we’re running for our lives as refugees with a helpless baby. Has God totally abandoned us?”
Of course, Emanuel himself experiences the powerlessness of infancy amid violence. He enters the world only able to cry and flail his little body. He’s saved by dissident foreigners and survives as a refugee strapped to his mother’s back. Was this the beginning of the emotional anguish and agony that poured out of Jesus later in his life?
Perhaps the world itself groaned with this underwhelming Emanuel. He offered no easy answers, no quick fixes, no immediate overthrow of injustice or an end to suffering. From most appearances, he was just another powerless baby, as vulnerable and needy as the rest of us — another victim of human strife and suffering.
But this is the disappointment and promise of Christmas: God’s presence is with us in our deepest pain and darkest despair, whether we realize it or not.
And thus Christmas offers us a fragile but fierce hope: God may not have shown up in the power we crave, but God has also not disappeared. We may be looking for God in all the wrong places and thus feel his absence. But God is with us — in the womb of a woman aching for justice, in the manger of our dislocated vulnerability, in the village under military occupation, in the joy of bottom-class shepherds, in the welcome of pagan foreigners who protect a baby from a violent ruler, in the refugee camp desperate for basic needs.
To use the tired cliche, this Christmas gives us 2020 vision into what Christmas is really about. And thus it challenges and comforts us at the same time. God cries and flails and snuggles with us despite everything. God comes in vulnerability and gentleness, not spectacle and violence. God shares our disappointment, loss, and grief. And God whispers, “This is not the whole story. Hold on. Don’t surrender to the fear, anger, and aggression surging around you and inside you. I’m with you.”
Perhaps this Christmas, like the first Christmas, feels impossibly inadequate to you or just what you needed. I feel torn between the two. But it seems to be what God offers us: a gentle presence in our pain that promises healing is coming.
When we say yes to the angel like Mary, when we practice radical mercy against our religious culture like Joseph, when we welcome infidel foreigners across borders like the holy parents, when we refuse to respond to hate and violence with hate and violence — God is with us, perhaps not in the way we want, but real and alive and full of promise.
Dear friends, I don’t know in what circumstances this newsletter finds you. Perhaps you feel like everything is lost. Perhaps you feel surprised by joy. Perhaps you feel some mix of both. Through it all, I pray Emanuel would visit and accompany you in a new way in this season. May you experience God’s presence and the gentleness, peace, and hope of God’s promise even as we ache and grieve. This is our rest and rebellion as we pray, “O come, Emanuel.”
Yours with love and affection this Christmas,