Three weeks ago we were making final preparations for Christmas busily making sure our families and churches had everything they needed to celebrate Jesus’s birth. Although there is much joy in the season part of me is relieved it’s all over and we can get back to reality.
Many people use Christmas to escape from reality into a tinsel-trimmed, food-filled fantasy. However, so often this fantasy fails to live up to expectations and afterwards people find themselves poorer, fatter, unsatisfied and in danger of having missed the whole point.
Even as Christians we can focus too much on nice nativities and festive feasts. But in Matthew 2 there is a part of the Christmas story that we tend to leave out – Herod’s slaughter of Bethlehem’s sons. We are confronted by a family fleeing for their lives and the horror of children being massacred. We are drawn into a story of cruelty, fear and despair. But this is as much part of the Christmas story as the little baby Jesus, angels, shepherds and wise men. It is difficult for us to reconcile the fantasy that we have made out of Christmas with the reality of God born into an unfair, dangerous world.
This may raise some difficult questions. We may want to ask why the timing of Jesus’s birth led to such suffering. Since this was the fulfilment of prophecy does that mean God willed it to happen? Did God need babies to die in order for his plan of redemption to succeed? The answer is no! God does not need evil or suffering in order to accomplish his good purposes. He often works good out of suffering but that’s because God delights in redeeming situations, not because he needs bad things to happen in order for him to bring good things out of them. He is a redeemer after all. As one author said, “Grace does not depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colours.”
The other question we might ask is ‘Where is God in all this?’ He is right there in the midst of suffering. It is at that time that God chose to share the human experience at its most extreme, living the full cost of incarnation, fully participating in the human story in all its messy reality to show us that God is with us in our suffering. Jesus did not promise his followers that they would lead trouble-free lives, quite the reverse in fact, but he did promise that he would always be with us. The message of Christianity is not the offer of a life without suffering, it is the promise that we need never suffer alone. This is a message of hope that comes with an assurance that this life is not all there is, this is not the end. There is an eternity in which God will wipe every tear from our eyes and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.
That is why Christmas is not supposed to be a break from reality but a celebration of when God broke into our reality and Christ became Immanuel, God with us.
Sophie Carnaby MTh, Mission Enabler, the Ashford Town Parish