This Christmas seems a little darker than most.
Perhaps it’s just a part of growing older — when you’re a child, Christmas is full of mystery and presents and laughter and presents. Thank God my childhood was a happy one, and so Christmas was a happy day in the middle of a happy life.
As you grow older, your eyes are opened to the fact that not everyone has happy childhoods and not everyone has happy lives. Christmas isn’t always a happy day in the midst of a happy life.
But this doesn’t make Christmas less joyful — or at least it shouldn’t — because joy is not an emotion or a warm fuzzy feeling. That is why we all still lit that pink candle on Gaudete Sunday, a Sunday of joy, despite being a nation in shock and mourning. Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, the rejoicing that occurs not because happy things are happening in our lives, but the rejoicing because God exists and, if we’re in the state of grace, dwells within us. We rejoice because The Good exists and we possess it in our souls.
This Christmas, I have dear friends who are suffering. Several are away from their families for Christmas; one has to work the entire day; one is suffering from abuse and depression; one has a son in Afghanistan. There are Christians suffering under occupation, nations ready for war, and our own country on the brink of financial crisis. There are people suffering under debilitating illnesses and cancer. There are those who have no physical homes to go to, those who have no family, those who don’t even believe in the Christ child. And there are families reeling from the loss of the dearest present God has ever given them: their child, their mother, their sister, their brother, because of a lost soul who didn’t value his own life or those innocent lives at Sandy Hook.
Into this darkness, the Christ child comes: regardless of who believes in Him, who listens to Him, or who recognizes Him.
“The Lord himself will give you a sign.
Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel.”
This prophecy of Isaiah, dating back to 733 BC, proclaims that the Messiah will be born to a virgin. But God, through the prophet, tells us something else very specific about this Messiah: that he will be called “Emmanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14)
Emmanuel: God with us.
Pope Benedict points out, “Even though Jesus is not actually named Emmanuel, nevertheless He is Emmanuel, as the entire history of the Gospels seeks to demonstrate. This man — they tell us– in His very person is God’s being-with-men.”
Into this dark world, God has come, and He has come in a way He has never come before — He has entered time and space in order to be with us.
He comes not to take us from this dark world, but to dwell in it with us.
When St. Joseph learns of his mission- to take Jesus into his home- he learns of Jesus’ mission too: “you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save his people from their sins.” (Mt 1:21). What does it mean to save us from our sins? Pope Benedict points out that, like the healing of the paralytic lowered through the roof, this saving of our sins might be disappointing at first — “The promising of forgiveness of sins seems both too little and too much: too much, because it trespasses upon God’s exclusive sphere; too little, because there seems to be no thought of Israel’s concrete suffering or its true need for salvation.”
Perhaps the families in Newtown, or each of us individually, could say the same thing– where is God in this darkness? Why has He come, if we are still suffering? Or has He even come?
“Man is a relational being,” the Pope continues. “And if his first, fundamental relationship is disturbed — his relationship with God — then nothing else can be truly in order. This is where the priority lies in Jesus’ message and ministry: before all else, He wants to point man toward the essence of his malady, and to show him — if you are not truly healed there, then however many good things you may find, you are not truly healed. In this sense, the explanation of Jesus’ name that was offered to Joseph in his dream already contains a fundamental clarification of how man’s salvation has to be understood and hence what the Saviour’s essential task must be.”
This is the light of Christmas — not that there is no longer darkness, but that the light has come to join us in the darkness to save us from ourselves.
Georges de la Tour’s meditative “The Newborn,” reminds us that this was the only baby born in this world in order to die. Other children come to live; He came to die. The swaddling clothes were a prefigurement of the shroud, the wood of the cradle an anticipation of the wood of the cross.
This mission of Emmanuel is prefigured in the famous Old Testament story of Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael in the third chapter of Daniel. King Nebuchadnezzar throws the men in the fire because they will not worship his gods. The men tell the king, “If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king.” The men are delivered– but how? The king sees not three men in the fire, but four — and the fourth’s appearance “is like a son of the gods.”
God could have yanked those men out of the fire. But He doesn’t. Instead He joins them in the fire.
He could deliver us from all suffering – and He does – not by taking it away, but by joining us.
In the Incarnation, God takes on human flesh so that He can suffer. As God, He is immutable — unchangeable — and perfect, and cannot suffer deprivation. And so He takes a complete human nature to Himself, in order that He may suffer with us.
That is the mystery of Christmas. Not that our God has come to wipe away our tears, but to weep with us.
If this Christmas seems darker than most, embrace the light of the Christ child. He knows your needs better than you do; in the darkness, He is already there waiting for you.