4th Sunday of Advent
The turmoil of this world can present a serious obstacle to the celebration of the coming feast of Christmas, especially for those who are most directly suffering the evils that abound in this world, the innocent victims of war, famine, crime, the breakup of families, and on and on. Just how does one celebrate the feast of Christmas, the birth of the Prince of Peace with bombs falling around you, or with marauding bands of soldiers trying to destroy your village and enslave you, or with no food for your children because famine or war have wiped out your crops? So many people in our world are suffering these kinds of evils, and what can Christmas mean to them in the midst of such suffering, even if they are Christians who truly believe in Christ?
Well, for one thing we can hope that these suffering Christians recall that the birth of Jesus took place in the midst of just such turmoil and suffering. Indeed, the world He was born into knew all these evils, with the exception of modern weapons of destruction. Nonetheless, there were tremendous evils in the world ruled by Rome. And we must remember that the immediate circumstances of his birth caused much suffering, beginning with the great mental suffering caused by slander because she was with child in a way she could not explain. Likewise there was the initial suffering of Joseph who did not understand himself how this child was conceived, though he never could have doubted Mary’s goodness. Then there was their mutual suffering of having to make a journey to Bethlehem for a politically motivated census by the Romans at the time Mary was about to give birth. There was the suffering of the indignity and hardship of the stable as the birth place of her child. And finally there was the suffering of their fleeing to Egypt to escape an evil king wanted to kill the Messiah foretold for Israel, and there was the suffering of the innocent children who would die.
What evil and sadness all this entailed, and yet what joy burst upon this scene at the moment of his birth, the joy of Mary and Joseph whose eyes saw the Promised One for the first time, the joy of the angels who announced this good news to the shepherds; the joy of the shepherds who until then knew only poverty and long suffering, but now had a savior born to save them, and reward their patience in awaiting Him. What a strange world, such evil and suffering mixed now with such goodness and joy. It’s our world, the world of man, who is the subject of this mystery of iniquity and goodness, suffering and joy, despair and happiness. It’s this world that the child came into, to save it, to make joy possible in the midst of sadness, happiness in the midst of suffering, hope in the midst of despair.
Recall Psalm 8: what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him? Yet thou hast made him little less than God, and dost crown him with glory and honor. Man is the object of God’s unfathomable love, and God crowned us with honor and glory when he became one of us. He knows our poverty because he was born in a stable; he knows our suffering because he chose to suffer for our sins; and he knows how evil oppresses us because he died on a cross to redeem us.
It is all this that makes Christmas a joyful event for believers no matter what the circumstances they may live in at a particular time. It was precisely because God understood our suffering that he suffered for us. It was because he understood how evil, beginning with our own sins, threatens to ruin and destroy our lives that he chose to die for us.
Man is the architect of his own situation in this world. While we have the capacity for doing much good, it’s clear that we also have the tendency to do even greater evil. Most of the suffering in our world is caused by man’s inhumanity to man. Even though we have the tools and marvelous inventiveness to overcome much of the suffering in our world, we do not have the will to do so, nor the power to overcome our own sins. That is why God chose to intervene in our world, and yet even after his humble coming, his sacrifice, his offer of salvation, man continues to create a world without God, which inevitably means a world with tremendous suffering.
Christmas, nonetheless, reminds us that if we are truly believers, that there is always hope for the world. A child was born for us who can change the world, if only we allow him to change ourselves. All we have to do is surrender our pride and self-centeredness, and become his faithful disciples. A great light continues to shine in the darkness of this world, a light which dawned in a cave in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. Those who follow that light will come to know a joy the world cannot take away, no matter how much it tries. As Advent concludes, may you be rewarded with that special joy of Christmas, and may your joy be complete when you see this great light shining from his infant face.