It’s been another bad week at the end of what has been a bad year, a year that some are suggesting has been the worst of all years. Events in Berlin should shock us but I wonder if they do to the extent that they really ought. With all the bad news this year, the terrorist attacks in Nice and Brussels, the conflict in Syria and the appalling destruction in Aleppo, earthquakes in Ecuador, Italy, and Taiwan, plane crashes, hurricanes and flooding not to mention the deaths of so many celebrities, might we be becoming too familiar with tragedy, numbed to the horror, unable to process the awfulness? Do we distance ourselves from the news, holding on to the lie that it couldn’t happen to us, imagining that it doesn’t really having anything to do with our lives? In the week before Christmas, do we simply pay lip service to how dreadful it all is before continuing on our merry way – unchanged, unmoved, unaffected. After all – what’s it got to do with Christmas?
And that’s the problem with Christmas, or rather the problem with the Christmas that we have created. As with life, we struggle to conceive that the realities of hate, pain and suffering sit alongside those of love, joy and peace – that these things, to a greater or lesser extent, are present in all our lives – present indeed, even in ourselves. We have marginalised the horror of the Christmas story, preferring the sanitised version that fits better with our over optimistic outlook on life, our over optimistic view of who we are. ‘It’s all good’ we try to tell ourselves but the truth is rather different – we exist in a world of good and evil.
Life can be filled with overwhelming joy.
And yet, life can be hard, very hard. For some, impossibly hard.
And for many the sadness is just too much.
The Christmas story reflects this – the joy of the birth of Jesus and the hope that the arrival of a saviour brought with it, is mixed with the abject poverty into which he was born, the rejection experienced by his parents and the murder of the innocents at the hands of Herod. And, of course, what began in ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ led to ‘…a green hill far away, outside a city wall’ – ‘the little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay’ grew up and suffered the horror of crucifixion. The Roman orator Cicero described crucifixion as ‘a most cruel and disgusting punishment’ and suggested that ‘the very mention of the cross should be far removed not only from a Roman citizen’s body, but from his mind, his eyes ,his ears.’ That is the world we live in, joy and sadness, pleasure and pain – we cannot have one without the other. Indeed the two are mutually dependent on each other – the existence of suffering is why we need a redeemer and redemption is secured through the suffering that redeemer endured – suffering that we all still share in.
Sorrowful yet always rejoicing. These were words of the apostle of Paul in his second letter to the church at Corinth and we would would do well to ponder them, to reflect on the fact that we cannot expect to live trouble free lives. Hardships and calamities will befall us and they will bring with them great sorrow. Yet despite those hardships, despite the awful suffering, there is, in Christ, still hope and a cause for rejoicing. Leonard Cohen says it well:
There’s a lover in the story but the story’s still the same
There’s a lullaby for suffering and a paradox to blame
But it’s written in the scriptures, and it’s not some idle claim
We live in the tension of the already and the not yet. Because of Jesus life death and resurrection and the redemption that he as secured, the future is assured – it is so certain that we can count it as already here. We we can live rejoicing in the confidence of its inevitability whilst at the same time, honestly acknowledging that it is ‘not yet’. We live in the very real pain of today, the heart breaking awfulness of now. Even as we rejoice in the joy of Christmas, we dare not tell ourselves, or indeed our children, differently. To do so is to delude ourselves, and them, and ensure disillusionment and despair when eventually the truth can be denied no longer.