There must have been evensong here long before the news of Christ. Surely for as long as there have been nights bad as this one---something to raise the possibility of another night that could actually, with love and cockcrows, light the path home, banish the Adversary, destroy the boundaries between our lands, our bodies, our stories, all false, about who we are: for the one night, leaving only the clear way home and the memory of the infant you saw, almost too frail, there's too much shit in these streets, camels and other beasts stir heavily outside, each hoof a chance to wipe him out, make him only another Messiah, and sure somebody's around already taking bets on that one, while here in this town the Jewish collaborators are selling useful gossip to Imperial Intelligence, and the local hookers are keeping the foreskinned invaders happy, charging whatever the traffic will bear, just like the innkeepers who're naturally delighted with this registration thing, and up in the capital they're wondering should they, maybe, give everybody a number, yeah, something to help SPQR Record-keeping ... and Herod or Hitler, fellas [...] what kind of world is it [...] for a baby to come in tippin' those Toledos at 7 pounds 8 ounces thinkin' he's gonna redeem it, why, he oughta have his head examined ... But on the way home tonight, you wish you'd picked him up, held him a bit. Just held him, very close to your heart, his cheek by the hollow of your shoulder, full of sleep. As if it were you who could, somehow, save him. For the moment not caring who you're supposed to be registered as. (Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow, 1973, p135)
A dismal world; grim and grimy, unmerciful, permanently warring; self-serving power plays, hypocrisy, backhanders; deceit and self-delusion. Terrible, unthinkable reports getting closer to home every week, every day. But you hear rumours — if only … you long, who wouldn’t? — a light, a hope, a salvation. Who wouldn’t want that?
But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. [...]
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.
You have multiplied the nation;
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:1a, 2-7)
Of course, wanting (even corporately, for the 750-odd determined years between Isaiah's prophecy and the birth of Jesus) doesn’t make it so. For Pynchon, perhaps, that is reason enough for wistful skepticism: isn't this precisely the sort of narrative we human beings would construct for our mutual comfort and reassurance? A tiny, unbearably fragile child, the embodiment of a world-transforming promise … that is the appeal, that is the beauty of the story. But it is also its point of weakness — against the looming awfulness of this present darkness … surely such a frail hope can never really, well, stand a hope … can it?
Besides, just look around you: two millennia, and what has changed? If anything, the darkness appears on the up. It has globalised, technologised, mobilised ... publicised itself increasingly effectively via the various mass media channels. Pynchon found parallels enough between the circumstances of Jesus’ birth and those of the conflict and genocide-tormented world of 1944; a powerful image from the recent Christmas edition of the Spectator, situating a traditional crib scene among bombed-out tower blocks, similarly emphasises contemporary analogues. It is trivial to find abundant new supplementary material any minute of any day of any week just by hitting refresh on the website of your news outlet of choice (albeit alongside a fair number of remarkable squirrels, celebrity wardrobe faux pas, super-food-promoting pseudo-science, and reality TV show evictions — actually, come to think of it, the proliferation of such phenomena might well be considered supporting evidence in its own right).
So what, then, of the baby in the manger? The given son? The promised Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace? Where is this hoped-for peace, justice, righteousness?
Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he [God] left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. […] Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. (Hebrews 2:8-9,14-15)
“Not yet,” acknowledges the writer of Hebrews. And yet … something has changed — irrevocably, substantially. There is (immensely) more to the Incarnation than that cosy diorama in our collective mind’s eye — glowing manger, blissful mother, noble husband, docile livestock, sturdy stable, gastro-pub-signage-esque illuminated star, backdrop of angel-crowded skies, shepherds hurrying over gently rolling hills, and distant on the horizon ... is that ... ? yes, a caravan of camels just discernible in silhouette. Well might the Pynchons of this world protest that the traditional Christmas card tableau is just too 'pretty' to be true ...
According to the Biblical accounts of the beginnings and the continuation of Jesus' earthly life, the reality was far less pretty. It was beautiful ... and bewildering, and awesome, and brutal, and astoundingly/uncomfortably actual.
The thing is — the profound, central detail which so easily gets missed this time of year — Jesus wasn’t born into a fluffy, idealised alternate reality with twinkly lights and choral music and sweet-smelling straw-effect bedding; he was born into this world, as it is ... at least as bleak and dark and grotesque as Pynchon paints it (oh and, by the way, I'm halfway through Gravity's Rainbow and oboy does it get bleak and dark and grotesque). He was born under Roman occupation, in poverty, with the shadow of scandal hanging over his family; he was displaced and persecuted from the get-go, scorned and accused throughout his ministry, then tortured and executed an enemy of Rome and a blasphemer according to Jewish law. Whatever our many unanswered 'whys' about the suffering and evil of the now of our existence, one thing the Bible does reveal is that "he who was in very nature God" (cf. Philippians 2) entered into it with us (willingly — he ‘laid his glory by’ as my favourite carol puts it) and that somehow, by this lived-out reality, by the world-order-subverting 'triumph' of the cross and all that followed, we can be "born again" ...
... to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:3-7)Perhaps you read that and think 'pie in the sky' ... But there are many stories of people who, having searched and enquired for themselves, dare to hold to such a hope and have found their lives and characters transformed (in the midst of all sorts of differently bleak 'nows') as a result. They testify to a peace which transcends circumstance (cf. Philippians 4:7). Moreover, learning (by grace) to ground their entire basis of being on the foundation and example of Jesus, they are no longer bound by the world's ruling principles of self-preservation and self-promotion: they find themselves increasingly free to lay aside their own 'glory'; something like Jesus' own radical humility and servant-heartedness begins to materialise in them ... and, through them, in the world. One recently-spotlighted example that springs to mind is Canon Andrew White's ministry in Baghdad, and his Christmas message describing the faith and hope of severely persecuted Christian communities in Iraq:
I will never forget the day in Baghdad when we had some visitors. They had come to see what it was really like for Christians in Iraq. They were so surprised by how happy the thousands of people were in our congregation. "How can you be so happy when you are surrounded by suicide bombs, mortar rockets and such violence?" One of our young people answered the statement. "You see when you have lost everything, Jesus is all you have got left."
All you have got left is the love of that refugee child. That to us in the Middle East is all that matters this Christmas. The terrorism has got so bad in Iraq that I have had to leave. So I have moved to the other place where I work, Bethlehem. That little town where Jesus first came. Two-thousand years after he first came, he is still everything to the people. He is still everything to our Christians in Iraq and he can still be everything to us. You see when Christmas is over, when you have had all your presents and food, Jesus is all we have got left.
So Christmas is a time when we should never loose the meaning of this Christ Child who came to us so that by simply trusting in him we will have a life filled with hope and purpose and love. He is still with us 2000 years after he first came. This Christmas let us not forget that he so loves us that we must love him and in response our life will be changed forever. (Canon Andrew White, blogging for The Huffington Post, December 2014)
[Thumbnail image cc from jbcurio on Flickr]