We did not want it easy, God,
But we did not contemplate
That it would be quite this hard,
This long, this lonely.
So, if we are to be turned inside out,
and upside down,
With even our pockets shaken
Just to check what’s rattling
And left behind,
We pray that you will keep faith with us,
And we with you,
Holding our hands as we weep,
Giving us strength to continue,
And showing us beacons
Along the way
To becoming new.
By Jane Redmont
The seasons of Christmas and Epiphany are difficult, even painful for many people: those who mourn, those who suffer from depression, those who struggle with sobriety, those for whom “family” does not mean “joy.” Some colleagues in ministry have taken to offering a “blue Christmas” service at their churches in acknowledgment of this reality.
Our immediate and constant call is to welcome and comfort and offer pastoral care, sometimes in the simple form of acknowledging that this is not a time of rejoicing for everyone. And always, poverty and hunger are at our doorstep; wars batter many lands, including the one where Jesus walked; like the child Jesus, refugee children are born away from their parents’ homes.
But there is more, spiritually and theologically. Perhaps because I have had a difficult few months –a house destroyed by a falling tree; a job whose demands caused me to choose constantly between work and sleep; an attempted break-in at my new residence; stresses in the ordination process; deadlines met and unmet— I have been especially aware this Christmastide of the suffering dimensions of the Incarnation.
I came home early from the office on the day before Thanksgiving hoping for a nap and some quiet and found that someone had thrown a brick through the window of my study. In addition to the brick and to the dirt that clung to it, there was shattered glass all over the room. Days after the police visits, the sweeping and vacuuming, the window repair, and the restoral of order after chaos, I was still finding shards in and on and under the furniture and the stacks of paper. I have kept one of the fragments, for reasons I do not entirely understand, on my desk, where it sits amid the Post-Its and icons.
The symbolism is so obvious I hesitate to use it: sometimes suffering comes crashing in, shattering the windows, a blatant intruder; sometimes it is less obvious: we walk our daily rounds and slivers of sharp glass surprise us, reminding us of old wounds and creating new ones.
On the first Sunday after Christmas, meditating aloud in a sermon on the Word made flesh I spoke, briefly of some meanings of incarnation, of the ways in which Christ is present among us, on this earth, in this flesh of ours. Among the forms of Christ’s presence I mentioned incarnation and suffering in one breath, in a way I had never done before at Christmastide.
Because I was preaching with a small community and one which I know well, I had decided to keep my reflections brief and to open up a space for shared reflection on the Word. At the end of my reflections I asked: How has the word been made flesh in your life? How do you see the Word being made flesh in the world around us?
Toward the end of the shared sermon time, a longtime member of the congregation, active for years in many causes for justice, from faith-based opposition to the death penalty to the plight of the people of Darfur, began to speak and to weep. “Where is God?” she asked. “Where is God in the lives of children whose bodies are distorted by hunger? It is easy to feel that God is here when I am holding my well fed grandchildren in my arms. But there…” She found it hard to continue.
Silence followed. I spoke only a few words after. They are less important than the suffering, the cry, and the remembrance, then and later, that our God is a God who suffers.
Into this world,
this demented inn,
in which there is absolutely no room for him at all,
Christ has come uninvited.
But because he cannot be at home in it,
because he is out of place in it,
and yet he must be in it,
his place is with those others for whom there is no room.
His place is with those who do not belong,
who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak,
those who are discredited,
who are denied the status of persons,
With those for whom there is no room,
Christ is present in this world.
Thomas Merton (from Raids on the Unspeakable)
I have often thought –and preached—that in this season we consider the vulnerability of God. That has never felt out of place. But though related to the suffering of God, it felt somehow different, different from speaking of the suffering of God on Christmas. Save that one for Good Friday, we think.
Yet there is long Christian tradition, in poetry and music and other theologies, for reflecting on the shadow of the cross that looms over the manger: Mary’s sufferings in later life in that other time of gazing at her son’s body, and Jesus’ suffering in adult life — not only the sufferings imposed by Herod on Jesus’ migrant family or on the Innocents whose massacre we remember so soon after the feast of the Nativity.
I have often felt that the shadow of the cross had no place on Christmas or took away from the celebration of incarnation. But cross –cross as suffering, Jesus’ suffering and ours, not surrogate suffering, not substitutionary atonement, just suffering, the kind with no explanation—does belong there. Or rather, it is there, at Christmas, amid the hugs and the tinsel and the cherished carols and the crèche.
I understand better this year the lines in T.S. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi, which I have read on or around Epiphany, year after year, for decades now:
… were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
In these days of Christmastide and Epiphany, of considering our suffering and that of others, of pondering the suffering of God and yes, God’s vulnerability, another poem always returns to visit. It comes from the theologian Dorothee Sölle, who wrestled all her life with how to speak of God in the face of the reality of evil, particularly that of the Shoah (Holocaust) in her native Germany. In those times of torment, she wrote, especially times of massive social evil, when countless people suffered and systems failed, God was weak. God was small and needy; God needed more friends.
God needs us. Like the cross on Christmas, like Christmas itself, this truth turns our thinking upside down. And so it should.
He needs you
that’s all there is to it
without you he’s left hanging
goes up in dachau’s smoke
is sugar and spice in the baker’s hands
gets revalued in the next stock market crash
he’s consumed and blown away
that’s what faith is
he can’t bring it about
couldn’t then couldn’t later can’t now
not any rate without you
and that is his irresistible appeal
Dorothee Sölle (from Revolutionary Patience)
Jane Redmont’s book When in Doubt, Sing: Prayer in Daily Life has just been reissued in paperback by Sorin Books. She blogs at Acts of Hope and, on behalf of the Bishop’s Committee for Racial Justice and Reconciliation of the Diocese of North Carolina, at Race, Justice, and Love. Poems used by permission.