Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground; he comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found, far as the curse is found, far as, far as, the curse is found.
-Stanza 3, Joy to the World
Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long; beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong; and warring humankind hears not the tiding which they bring; O hush the noise and cease your strife and hear the angels sing!
-Stanza 3, It came upon a midnight clear
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone, snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow, in the bleak midwinter, long ago.
Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain; heaven and earth shall flee away, when he comes to reign, in the bleak midwinter a stableplace sufficed the Lord God incarnate, Jesus Christ.
-Stanzas 1 and 2, In the bleak midwinter
My first year as a rector was shaped by time spent with an 8 year old. When I met him, he was in the late stages of a battle with a brain tumor. I saw him almost daily for several months until he died on Christmas Eve. His funeral was held on December 28, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the day when we remember the cruelty of a political system that left mothers grieving over toddlers murdered by King Herod’s forces. Hardly the jolly material we’ve come to associate with Christmas. We observed this feast two days ago, on Saturday. It caused me to remember my young friend, a companion in the journey of faith, in many ways my teacher.
The fact is, I never fail to notice in the Christmas season that while there may be an abundance of desserts, our faith does not sugarcoat the truth about our lives.
On December 21, we observe the Feast of St. Thomas. In the days after Jesus was tortured and killed, we meet dispirited disciples locked behind closed doors for fear of political retribution. In that locked room, Thomas shares doubts born of grief.
On the day after Christmas, we observe the Feast of St. Stephen, the guy who triggered all that singing about good King Wenceslaus. A closer look reminds us that Stephen was the first martyr of the church, victim of brutal execution, responding in a Christ-like fashion, asking forgiveness for those who were killing him.
And then we tell a story about young boys being killed by King Herod.
All of this is to say that the story of Christmas is full not only of grace, but also full of truth. It conveys the truth of the incarnation, the power of Immanuel, which means God with us in the suffering that is part of the deal. That presence is the very definition of compassion. As I’ve mentioned before, one of my mentors repeatedly told his congregants that suffering was the promise life always keeps. A profoundly Christian tenet, but one that is key to Buddhist thinking as well. I’m imagining that Monday Matters readers each know something about that.
I remember the memorial service I did for that eight year old, fumbling for words, recalling that there was no way to make sense of it. I’ve been taught that in the face of such suffering, there may be no words. We are called to withstand when we can’t understand. We are called to proclaim when we can’t explain. And what we proclaim is the good news that in the end, love will win.
In the meantime, we may have no earthly idea how that will be true. We live in that meantime, and so we pray for the holy innocents in our midst, victims of war and terrorism and gun violence, children hiding under desks in schools, refugee children on our borders, detained in cages and separated from loved ones, those who contend each day with poverty and hunger, some in our neighborhoods, in our local schools. I have no words to explain how all this can be. Holy innocents surround us.
There are times we can explain suffering. It sometimes comes as consequence of what we do. It sometimes results from greed or envy or fear or indifference. But there is a whole stream of suffering which seems random and beyond explanation. That’s where Jesus can be our teacher, as we survey the wondrous cross on which the prince of glory died, sorrow and love flow mingled down.
And somehow we still sing “Joy to the World.” (I’ve actually had a few requests for that hymn at funerals.) I go back to the Book of Joy, the chronicle of conversations between the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. The book records the joyful character of their relationship. Laughter looms large. Yet both knew deep suffering at the hands of cruel political systems. They were never in denial about the principalities and powers they battled. Yet in it all, they exude joy. Maybe they know the wisdom of a saying attributed to all kinds of folks: “In the end, all will be well. If all is not well, it’s not the end.”
I recognize this is not the cheeriest holiday message. But I hope that it can be one marked by grace and truth, one marked by joy, as we recognize that Jesus knows what we go through and meets us with compassion.
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