God Comes Near

It’s Christmas Eve, that joyous time of celebration with family and friends, that night of wonder, a day to imagine peace on earth.

For some, that is.

As we celebrate the season of light, let us be ever mindful of those for whom this is a time of darkness. As we gather in joy, let us remember those who are experiencing sadness. As we hail the birth of the Prince of Peace, let us not forget the many places in our world—even in our own community—where violent conflict, war, displacement, and death reign.

On Monday evening I attended a gathering arranged by the Columbus People’s Partnership to support the families of Henry Green and Tyre King as they face their first Christmas without their loved ones. I sat next to Dearrea King, Tyre’s grandmother, during the meal. She told me it was difficult for her and her family because their private experience of grief is simultaneously a very public controversy. That’s what happens when a thirteen-year-old boy is shot and killed by a police officer: the death of your child or grandchild or brother ceases to be your concern alone. Ms. King told me she didn’t feel that she had been able to grieve properly yet, because the family is still waiting for the investigation to be concluded, and everything still seems so unresolved, even three months later.

A lot of people in our city, our nation, and our world are facing a Christmas of ambivalence, if not outright sorrow. Some of them are in our own congregation. It is in the nature of things for a holiday so associated with family should be painful to those whose family has been diminished by death in the previous year. The same is true for those whose families of origin have been a source of hurt and abuse rather than love and healing. Elvis is not the only one to face the prospect of a blue Christmas. It’s a common malady.

" Flight to Egypt " by  Waiting for the Word  is a Creative Commons image, licensed under  CC BY 2.0

"Flight to Egypt" by Waiting for the Word is a Creative Commons image, licensed under CC BY 2.0

It might help if we were to peel away the encrustations of legend and romance that have built up on the Christmas story over the centuries. When we look at the stories with fresh eyes, we see a frightened couple from impoverished circumstances, the subject of vicious gossip in their hometown because the young woman is pregnant and yet insists she is still a virgin. They have had to travel many days at the height of her pregnancy, at the behest of an imperial administration for whom they are nothing except a source of tribute. The land where they live is ruled by a paranoid despot who sends out death squads to hunt down and kill their child. While their son is still a toddler, they have to flee to Egypt to save their lives, and Jesus spends his formative years as a migrant and refugee.

This is not a romantic story, and we sentimentalize it to our own hurt. We worship and proclaim as king one whose birth took place in a cattle shed and was visited by uncouth shepherds. We follow and serve one who would later die alone at the hands of the state, convicted of sedition against the empire and executed in a manner reserved for slaves or traitors and considered a curse. It’s an odd little religion we have here.

But what this odd story tells us is that God is on the side of the poor and downtrodden. More than that, the doctrine of the Incarnation tells us that in some mysterious way God became one of the poor and downtrodden. That means that, because of Jesus, God understands grief. Because of Jesus, God knows what fear and abandonment feel like. God hears the cries of the children of Aleppo. God both grieves with and offers comfort to Dearrea King. God both suffers with and stirs hope within the people of South Sudan as they watch their country descend into chaos and possibly genocide. God understands the fear and uncertainty that many in our country feel as we look ahead to 2017 and beyond.

This is the God we worship and celebrate on Christmas Eve. Not an aloof, faraway God who cannot hear us, or an angry God we must appease. We worship the God who comes near—who came near to us in Jesus and who continues to come near to us through the Holy Spirit. We worship and celebrate Emmanuel, the God who is with us.

Glory to God in the highest! Merry Christmas!