4th Sunday of Advent
The turmoil of this world can certainly 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 Christians in our world are suffering these kinds of evils, and what can Christmas mean to them in the midst of such suffering; just how and why are they to rejoice?
Well, for one thing, we Christians know that the birth of Jesus took place in the midst of much turmoil and suffering. Indeed, the world He was born into was plagued with terrible evils, even if not with the evils of modern weapons of destruction. Nonetheless, there were tremendous social evils in the world ruled by Rome, and people suffered greatly from these evils. And we must also remember that the immediate circumstances of Jesus’ birth caused much suffering. For instance, there was the great mental suffering of Mary caused by social slander because she was with child in a way she could not explain to people. Likewise there was the initial suffering of Joseph who himself did not understand how this child was conceived, even though he never could have doubted Mary’s goodness. Then there was their mutual suffering of having to make an untimely journey to Bethlehem for a politically motivated census by the Romans right at the time that Mary was about to give birth. Then there was the suffering of the indignity and hardship of the stable where the birth of her child would take place. And finally there was the suffering of their haing to flee to Egypt in order to escape an evil king, who literally wanted to kill the Divine Child Messiah not to mention the suffering of the innocent children, and their parents, innocents who would die simply because thye evil king wanted to kake sure he killed the child of the prophecy whom he feared would threaten his kingship.
What evil and sadness then surrounded His birth, and yet, in the midst of all this, what joy burst upon this scene at the moment of His birth. Think of the the joy of Mary and Joseph whose eyes saw the Promised One for the first time, and forgot their troubles. Think of the joy of the angels who announced this good news to the shepherds and the joy of the shepherds who until then knew only poverty and long suffering. But now they had hope for they had a Savior, who according to the angels was born for their sake, to save them, and reward their patience in awaiting Him.
Oh, what a strange world we see there, such evil and suffering now mixed with such goodness and unquenchable joy. And that world is also our world, the world of fallen and redeemed men and women, who are the subjects of this mystery of iniquity and greater goodness, of great suffering and greater joy, despair and untold happiness. It’s this concrete world that the Christ Child came into, in order to save it, to make true joy possible even in the midst of sadness, true happiness possible in the midst of suffering, and true hope in the midst of despair.
Christmas should recall the beauty of 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 mysterious object of God’s unfathomable love, and God has truly “crowned us with honor and glory “ by becoming one of us. Who can doubt that He knows our poverty, for He was born in a stable; doubt that He knows our suffering for He chose to suffer for our sins; or doubt that He knows how evil oppresses us because He died on a cross to redeem us.
It is this worldview that makes Christmas a joyful event for true believers, no matter what the circumstances they may live in at a particular time. Prisoners in Gulags can know the joy of Christmas if they deeply believe that God understands their suffering because He suffered for them in the flesh. It was because Jesus understood how evil, beginning with our own sins, threatens to ruin and destroy our dignity and everything good in our lives that He chose to die for us and thus make our suffering bearable and filled with hope.
Man is the architect of his own situation in this world. While we have the capacity for doing much good, it’s very clear that we also have the tendency to do great 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, precisely because we have no power to overcome our own sins. That is why God chose to intervene in our world and its history, 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 us and for the world. A child was born for us Who has the power to change the world, if only we allow Him to change our hearts. All men have to do is surrender their pride and self-centeredness, and become His faithful disciples. There is no hope for such peace and justice without Him. But 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. And if enough people turn to Him, there is hope for the world as well.
As Advent concludes, may that light shine on each of us this Christmas. and may our joy be complete when we see this great light shining from his infant face.