These last couple of years have been difficult and destabilizing for nearly everyone, and for some more than others — much more. The pandemic killed millions worldwide and created a collateral fog of anxiety and confusion that has not fully dissipated. It exposed the fault lines in communities, families, and churches. American society in particular seems to have become increasingly polarized, fueled by strongly partisan and divisive rhetoric. Everywhere we look, there is violence: war, and the threat of war; violence toward people of color; mass violence toward children.
And in the midst of this madness we come to the Christmas season.
In our small family, the season will forever be marked by the memory of tragedy. This time two years ago, my already ailing mother contracted COVID, and died in the emergency ward of our local hospital on Christmas Day. I am grateful to the nurse who had the compassion and presence of mind to call me as Mom edged toward her final moments. She held the phone to Mom’s ear as I fumbled for words. I don’t really know what Mom heard, what she was capable of hearing. But the nurse told me that Mom took her last breath when I said goodbye.
It had already been a difficult year. But when Mom died, something of our sense of a “family Christmas” died with her. She died during a holiday surge of COVID cases, so I know other families have stories similar to ours. They suffered similar losses. They feel similarly adrift.
So it goes. Things change in ways we don’t anticipate and wouldn’t have chosen. They change whether we want them to or not. And we have to find our way.
Despite the changes, though, not all of our family traditions have fallen by the wayside. I will still make clay ornaments for the “kids,” now in their mid-30s, plus one for my toddler-age granddaughter. I will still drag the Christmas tree out of the garage and set it up. I will still take nostalgic pleasure in sitting in our darkened living room to stare at the colored lights.
Where is God in all this? Where is God in the loss and change? Where is God even in the things that haven’t changed?
Where is God? That’s the question. But that’s always been the question, even when we had the luxury of taking our traditions for granted.
. . .
When we read the Psalms, we realize quickly that the psalmists weren’t shy of asking the hard questions. Where are you, God? Why haven’t you done something? Are you asleep? Will you reject me forever? How long does this situation have to go on? Somehow, their deep reverence for the holiness and sovereignty of God didn’t translate into rules of religious politeness and the need to play nice. They model what it means to lament honestly, to bring all of our groaning to God.
It’s nice to have Christmas traditions that are infused with warm sentiment. Conversely, it’s hard to lose them. But this is an opportunity to dig beneath the traditions, to use the hard questions as spades seeking bedrock. And when we do, we discover that Christmas isn’t merely about the birth of the one who saves us from our sins. It’s certainly not about cute babies and adoring animals. It’s about answering the hard questions. It’s about God’s response to ages of lament, of the constant complaints of exile and oppression and alienation, the frustration of not feeling at home in your homeland.
Where are you, God? At Christmas, God gives a long-awaited one-word answer.
It takes three words to say it in English: God with us. But those three words are the bedrock.
No, those words don’t take away the pain. They only let us know that we don’t have to suffer the pain alone. Those words don’t bring back what we’ve lost. But they may point us to what we’ve always had and yet took for granted. Those words may not give us an immediate sense of God’s presence. But they encourage us to seek God’s presence, with the knowledge that the one in the manger is also the one who knows what it means to suffer the indignities of life in a broken and sinful world.
Emmanuel, God whispers.
Listen: can you hear it?