The turmoil of this world often creates a serious obstacle to the celebration of Christmas, especially for those who are most directly suffering: the innocent victims of war, famine, crime, the breakup of families, and on and on. Just how do you celebrate the feast of Christmas, the birth of the Prince of Peace with bombs falling around you, or with marauding bands of soldiers trying to destroy your village and enslave you, or with no food for your children because famine or war have wiped out your crops? Many people face these kinds of evils, and what can Christmas mean to them in the midst of such suffering, even if they are Christians who truly believe in Christ?
Well, for one thing we can hope that these suffering Christians recall that the birth of Jesus took place in the midst of just such turmoil and suffering. Indeed, the world He was born into knew all these evils under Roman rule, with the exception of modern weapons of mass destruction. And we must remember that the immediate circumstances of his birth caused much suffering, beginning with the great mental suffering caused by slander because Mary was with child in a way she could not explain. Likewise, there was the initial suffering of Joseph who did not understand himself how this child was conceived, though he never could have doubted Mary’s goodness.
Then there was their suffering in having to make a journey together, with Mary well advanced in her pregnancy, to Bethlehem for a Roman census. There was the indignity and hardship of the stable as the birthplace of her child. And finally there was their flight into Egypt to escape an evil king who wanted to kill the Messiah foretold for Israel – and who didn’t balk at the slaughter of the innocents to retain power.
What evil and sadness all this entailed, and yet what joy burst upon this scene at the moment of his birth, the joy of Mary and Joseph whose eyes saw the Promised One for the first time, the joy of the angels who announced this good news to the shepherds; the joy of the shepherds who until then knew only poverty and long suffering, but now had a savior born to save them, and reward their patience in awaiting Him.
What a strange world, such evil and suffering mixed now with such goodness and joy. It’s our world, the world of man, who is the subject of this mystery of iniquity and goodness, suffering and joy, despair and happiness. It’s this world that the child came into, to save it, to make joy possible in the midst of sadness, happiness in the midst of suffering, hope in the midst of despair.
The Nativity at Night by Geertgen tot Sint Jans, 1490
Recall Psalm 8: “What is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him? Yet thou hast made him little less than God, and dost crown him with glory and honor.” Man is the object of God’s unfathomable love, and God crowned us with honor and glory when he became one of us. He knows our poverty because he was born in a stable; he knows our suffering because he chose to suffer for our sins; and he knows how evil oppresses us because he died on a cross to redeem us.
It is all this that makes Christmas a joyful event in every age for believers, no matter what the circumstances they may live in. It was precisely because God understood our suffering that he suffered for us. It was because he understood how evil, beginning with our own sins, threatens to ruin and destroy our lives that he chose to die for us.
Man is the architect of his own situation in this world. While we have the capacity for doing much good, it’s clear that we also have the tendency to do even greater evil. Most of the suffering in our world is caused by man’s inhumanity to man. Even though we have the tools and marvelous inventiveness to overcome much of the suffering in our world, we do not have the will to do so, nor the power to overcome our own sins. That is why God chose to intervene in our world. Yet even after his humble coming, his sacrifice, his offer of salvation, we continue to create a world without God, which inevitably means a world with tremendous suffering.
Christmas reminds us that, if we are truly believers, there is always hope for the world. A child was born for us who can change the world, if only we allow him to change ourselves. All we have to do is surrender our pride and self-centeredness, and become his faithful disciples. A great light continues to shine in the darkness of this world, a light that dawned in a cave in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. Those who follow that light will come to know a joy the world cannot take away, no matter how much it tries.
As Advent concludes, may you be rewarded with that special joy of Christmas, and may your joy be complete when you see this great light shining from his infant face.