The Christmas pageants, nativity plays, and carols all seem very distant as we watch the news, as wars persist in Syria and Afghanistan and Congo and South Sudan, as we watch North Korea and the United States fire words at each other. We do our best to keep these tragic stories at bay and social media and popular culture work hard to collude with us.
Last month we heard, told, sang, prayed a Christmas story of love and peace, of a God who came to save the world. But there are many who justifiably ask when tragedy strikes, “Isn’t this Christmas stuff absurd in the face of all this conflict?” Where is God in the mess of the world? Where is hope now? The safe, beautiful, idyllic scenes of the Christmas cards seem a million miles from the reality of the suffering people are facing.
But if our faith seems irrelevant or inadequate perhaps we need to share some of the responsibility. Christmas has become tame and domesticated–treated as either a cozy source of emotionally uplifting platitudes or as a way to help our American economy thrive through extravagant Christmas purchases. Perhaps we have neglected to take the stories surrounding Jesus’ birth seriously. It’s hard for us to appreciate the full impact of the stories about Jesus’ birth without entering into the brutality he confronted as an infant and the vulnerability of a peasant family like Jesus’ family encountered. Jesus was born into a world ruled by a Caesar who spent resources glorifying himself as “savior of the empire” that should have been spent in saving his subjects from poverty, famine, or from Herod himself. Jesus was born to a people who were delivered from slavery in Egypt, but ruled by a king who drove him and his parents back there as refugees. The gospel stories are very clear about just how great and how oppressive the powers and principalities were at the time of Jesus’ birth. And when we read the story of the wise men, of Herod’s fury, of the slaughter of innocent babies, and of the fleeing of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph to Egypt, we know life after that first Christmas was not the safe, beautiful, idyllic we prefer to portray about Christmas. The “peace on earth” sung by angels is followed by death, destruction, suffering, and evil.
Where was God?
Last Sunday, we celebrated Epiphany, remembering when the wise men met and worshiped the Baby Jesus. They brought with them on their journey three deeply symbolic gifts. They came prepared to make a particular sort of response to the Messiah. They came with a set of expectations which make it much more likely that they would recognize God when they find him.
First, the wise men came with gold. If we are serious in our discipleship we will let Jesus impact the material things of our lives. For instance, the way we earn and spend our money. Or, the way we spend our time, use our talents. Or, what we are prepared to let go of, give up. It’s interesting that people’s first response to a tragedy is to give money—millions and millions of dollars of aid for hurricane, wild fires, and flooding relief. Our urge to be generous is a sign of God at work.
Second, the wise men came with frankincense. Frankincense–incense–was, and still is, used in prayer. It symbolizes openness to a world beyond the material, a world we can see and touch. Frankincense symbolizes our openness to mystery, an openness to the God who is infinitely greater than we can comprehend. We often feel–we often are–helpless in the face of tragedy. Our understanding fails. Our ability to act fails. If we are serious in our search for God we need to accept that we don’t already have the answers. Wise women and men searching for God today bear the frankincense that leads them into prayer, that says, I don’t know it all, I’m open to God’s unknown future, to what God may do next, not just what God has done already.
Third, the wise men came with myrrh. Myrrh is for embalming the dead. It is a bitter herb, a foretaste of the suffering that this Christ child, and those who follow him, would have to face. If we are serious about our search for God at work in the mess of the world, it is no good thinking that the journey will be without pain. Sometimes we feel the urge to turn away from the news. Sometimes we turn away from those in our communities. And sometimes we turn away from our own pain because we’d rather not “go there.” But the message of the wise men is that myrrh is an inescapable part of life. If God is to be found in war-battered places it will be by those who live already live there, the people who have the courage to go there and to stay there, who find the strength to rebuild and hope again.
If God is to be found in the painful places of our lives it will be by facing our suffering, sticking with the questions, not hiding behind platitudes and hoping it will all go away. We won’t find God in the mess of the world if we try to leave the myrrh behind, to avoid the death, to take the easy route.
Where is God?
God is present wherever love is expressed, in the tears of those whose lives are forever impacted by tragedy, and in the hearts and minds of those who respond with compassion, mercy, and devotion.