"There are stories that emerge from the life of Jesus before he was old enough to tell stories of his own. Some are more familiar than others; some are always written out of the school plays and pageants. The prophet Isaiah told of a child who would be born for the people, a son given to the world with authority resting on his shoulders. Hundreds of years later, in Mary and Joseph of Nazareth, this prophecy was being fulfilled. The angel had appeared. A child was born. The magi had come. The ancient story was taking shape in a field in Bethlehem. But when Herod learned from the magi that a king would be born, he gave orders to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under. At this murderous edict, another prophecy, this one spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, was sadly fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping; Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more” (Jeremiah 31:15, Matthew 2:16-18). While the escape of Mary and Joseph to Egypt allowed Jesus to be spared, the cost, as Rachel and all the mothers’ who didn’t escape knew well, was wrenchingly great.
Of the many objections to Christianity, the one that stands out in my mind as troubling is the argument that to be Christian is to withdraw from the world, to follow fairy tales with wishful hearts and myths that insist we stop thinking and believe that all will be right in the end because God says so. In such a vein, Karl Marx depicts Christianity as a kind of drug that anesthetizes people to the suffering in the world and the wretchedness of life. Likewise, in Sigmund Freud’s estimation, belief in God functions as an infantile dream that helps us evade the pain and helplessness we both feel and see around us. I don’t find these critiques and others like them troubling because I find them accurate of the kingdom Jesus described. I find them troubling because there are times I want to live as if Freud and Marx are quite right in their analyses. I am thankful that the Christmas story itself refuses me from doing so.
The story of Christmas is far from an invitation to live blind and unconcerned with the world of suffering around us, intent to tell feel-good stories while withdrawing from the harder scenes of life. In reality, the Incarnation leaves us with a God who, in taking our embodiment quite seriously, presents quite the opposite of escapism. The story of Rachel weeping for her slaughtered children is one story among many that refuses to let us sweep the suffering of the world under the rug of unimportance. The fact that it is included in the gospel that brings us the hope of Christ is not only what makes that hope endurable, but what proves Freud and Marx entirely wrong. For Christ brings the kind of hope that can reach even the most hopeless among us, within the darkest moment. Jesus has not overlooked the suffering of the world anymore than he has invited his followers to do so; it is a part of the very story he tells.
In a poem called “On the Mystery of the Incarnation,” Denise Levertov gives a description of the Christmas story with room for the darkness and a mystery that reminds us that the light will yet shine:
It’s when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form.
But to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly
failure to evolve) entrusts,
as guest, as brother,
The story of the Incarnation presents a God who comes near to the whole story, not merely the parts that fit neatly in pageants. This God speaks and acts in the very places that seem so dark that no human insight or power can do anything. God comes to be with us in our weakness, with us in despair and death and sorrow, with us in betrayal and abandonment. There is no part of the human experience that is left untouched by God’s becoming human. And there is no part of human experience that God cannot redeem and heal and save. There are many Rachels who are still weeping—the poor, the demoralized, the suffering, the mourning. With them, we wait and watch, looking toward the God who comes into the very midst of it."