I love Christmas.
I know its commercialized. I know that the reason for the season is going missing for many, but I still love this time of year.
I love the promise and the idealism of Christmas. I love that for a few days people hum tunes about peace on earth, joy to the world and snow (even in countries where there is no snow).
Most of all I love that for a few days, life priorities get rearranged. For a few days, it is our relationships that get the most attention. Family gets visited or skyped, meals are savoured and gifts are given.
Even pain associated with this time of year is the right kind of pain, the kind of pain that should be felt and not avoided: the pain of loved ones no longer with us, or the pain of broken or absent relationships.
This year too, there is another kind of pain that I have been conscious of: the pain of the gap between the Christmas promise of peace on earth and the truth of the ugly reality that has unfolded over the last twelve months.
I find myself humming some of the lyrics to U2’s song, Peace on Earth. Its a sad song that asks the question that many people find themselves wrestling with at this time of year, why is there so much pain in the world when the baby born in Bethlehem was meant to be the Prince of Peace?
Why does God let a little boy like Aylan Kurdi wash up on a beach? Why does God let ISIS do what it does? Why does God let a policeman shoot a teenager sixteen times? Why does God let a married couple shoot so many innocent people in San Bernadino?
Why doesn’t God fix the pain? Why doesn’t he take away the suffering?
I’m seeing in a new way that while these are profound questions, they reveal a misunderstanding about what Christmas is actually about.
Something clicked for me this week as I read Skye Jethani’s book With. In the book Jethani points out that before the world existed relationship was at “the core of the cosmos” in the form of the “one but not the same” love that God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit have for one another.
For God the most important organizing principle in the world is love.
For us the most important organizing principle is us.
We want the world to be re-ordered so our lives are free of pain and full of good feelings. We also want that for each other because we want it for ourselves, mind you if it is a choice between you or me, I will usually choose me.
We want God to come and fix the pain. We want God to take away the suffering.That’s exactly what the Jews expected the Messiah to do.
For God, the absence of pain and the presence of happiness are not the most important thing. Love is, and that’s why the baby was born in Bethlehem.
Jesus models a completely different value system that in our hearts we recognise as right, but which, for 2000 years we have struggled to comprehend.
As Jethani points out we keep defaulting to wrong pictures of God: the rule-maker, the wish granter, the headmaster in the sky or the boss who hands out assignments. God longs for a relationship with us, and instead of changing us and taking away our ability to be evil, he steps into the pain and brokenness created by evil and shows that the darkness doesn’t have to win.
As Jethani says:
The advent of Jesus Christ is what sets Christianity apart from other religions. We affirm that Christ is indeed Immanuel, God with us and that in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. He is the image of the invisible God. And with Jesus an entirely different way of relating to God is revealed to us. Rather than stumbling in the darkness between forms of religion that are each a variation of fear and control, through Christ the lights are turned on and our attention is drawn to an entirely different vision – LIFE WITH GOD.
When the baby born in Bethlehem entered the world there was injustice, pain and terrorism just like there is today. He came to model a different way of responding to that darkness: through love. He stepped into our pain and invited us to be with him in it.
Jesus’s way of responding to the pain is very different to ours. We want to take away the tears, but he models and invites us to “weep with those who weep”, to step into the pain rather than run away from it. We are to let ourselves be affected by the brokenness, in the same way he was, but instead of letting it win we are to shine a light of love that he makes possible by first loving us.
In Peace on Earth, Bono writes about people who were killed in a bombing:
They’re reading names out
Over the radio
All the folks the rest of us
Won’t get to know
Sean and Julia
Gareth, Anne, and Breeda
Their lives are bigger than
Any big idea
In the midst of a song that is desperate for hope, Bono catches onto the truth that what really matters is people. I wrote a couple of weeks ago that the only way the horror happens is when we no longer see people but see things.
The baby born in Bethlehem didn’t come to blow up the terrorists, but to remind those who would see people as objects, that people’s lives are bigger than any big idea.
The baby born in Bethlehem truly inaugurated a revolution, but it is a revolution that we need to come to terms afresh with every single day. When part of us wants to lash out, he exhorts us to bless those who persecute us. When we want to hate, he invites us to love.
As we saw little Aylan Kurdi’s body washed onto the beach, it was like for a moment we woke up and remembered this truth that we have always known.
The baby born in Bethlehem invites us to reconsider our whole lives and re-orientate around who (not what) truly matters.