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    painting of linen

    Crying He Makes

    What is Christmas to those who can’t feel jolly?

    By Kathleen A. Mulhern

    December 18, 2023
    • Alisha Bennett

      Beautiful and exactly what I needed to read today. Thank you.

    Each year, many churches hold Blue Christmas services during the weeks before the holiday. Blue Christmas services make room for those who find the holiday deeply painful for a variety of reasons  – loss, sorrow, depression, loneliness, hardship. Some call them “longest night services,” recognizing the prevailing darkness of the winter solstice and the helplessness of waiting for joy to return. Perhaps we should all attend a Blue Christmas service, just to get in touch with the suffering so immediately unavoidable for some and so largely inevitable for all of us.

    Yet those who seem constitutionally unable to cold-shoulder suffering during this season tend to be shunned as the rest collectively jolly themselves. We would rather retell each year the lovely story of the German and French soldiers who silenced their mortars on Christmas Day and had fellowship with one another in peace. The story warms us; it helps us reconnect with our essential humanity and embrace our differences.

    But it’s an odd story to celebrate, really. A precious reprieve, but so fleeting, with raw death before and more after. In some places, it lasted a few days, but that was the first Christmas of the First World War, 1914. There was some attempt to repeat the event in 1915, but by 1916, the bitterness and hatred and great suffering of the War had fully penetrated the troops. There were no repeats in 1916 or 1917. Which was more real? The goodness of humanity on display that singular night or the crushing evil of humanity on display in the 148 days prior and the 1416 days after?

    painting of Baby Jesus lying in a manger

    Jenedy Paige, Little Lamb. Used by permission. Watch a video about this painting.

    Not long ago, my students and I got on the topic of spiritual growth and suffering. It became apparent to me that most of them thought of suffering as occasional, circumstantial, and often self-inflicted discrete episodes. The goal, then, was to dodge these events as much as possible and develop good coping skills for when that dodging failed. A good Christian life should include fewer of these episodes than life outside of Christ, largely because of the good choices we Christians make. Yes, we will fall prey to illness, loss, and occasional victimization, but the Way of Jesus is a safer alternative than other lifestyles. And on top of all that, we have recourse to prayer and (at least sometimes) God unexpectedly grants the wildest, most audacious requests!

    Not entirely wrong. And yet something with this picture feels a bit too tidy.

    One of the greatest disadvantages of the modern age is knowing too much. Too much information. Too many news media telling us about too many tragedies or scandals or horrific victimizations. Too many stories of fires and floods, hurricanes and earthquakes. Too many stories of violence and malice and cavalier disregard for the young, the old, and the unwanted. In truth, it’s just too much for faith sometimes.

    Many Christians will reach a place in their journey where they have to come to grips with the fact that all the holy words of scripture, all their faith in Christ, all the ancient convictions the church has gifted to us, all the power of the gospel, all the great writings, and all poignant testimonies of the saints – all of this put together is still sometimes not enough to satisfy the profoundly painful realities of life. The problems are too great, and the responses seem too inadequate.

    In a favorite Christmas carol, we sing about the sweet little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay. The song mentions the lowing of the cattle that wakes the baby, but “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” I’ve wondered about that, as has every mother who sings that song. A human baby that doesn’t cry?

    The incarnation was Jesus’ humble willingness to bear our sorrows; he was the Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief. We rightly contemplate his years of selfless ministry, and the via dolorosa of his passion and death, but we may forget that his thirty years before those gospel events were fully human years too, likely years full of loss, sorrow, Roman oppression, poverty, wearying labor, and personal stories of trauma such as we all face. Jesus knew what it meant to face the longest night of the year, well before he reached his final night and its nadir of suffering. Our Lord Jesus wept, from his first day to his last.

    We may forget that Jesus’ thirty years before the gospel events were fully human years too, likely years full of loss, sorrow, and personal stories of trauma such as we all face.

    In The Wound of Knowledge, Rowan Williams writes about the early church’s grasp of the Way of Christ, a “pattern of his sacrificial torment and death – not in some kind of constructed self-immolation, but in response to the trials encountered simply in living as a believer, living in the insecurities of faith.” God’s “strange work” allows such a bald embrace of pain, Jesus’ and our own.

    Williams contrasts Augustine of Hippo with his counterpart Pelagius, who argued powerfully for the freedom of the will to assert itself in strength and virtue. Pelagius envisioned a world where the church, empowered by a vision of strength and perfection, could fashion a new world of moral excellence, free of the sordid underbellies that drag us down. Williams writes:

    Between the worlds of Augustine and Pelagius – in the twenty-first as much as in the fifth century – there can be little debate. The gulf is too wide. One person will see the world as difficult, but essentially capable of being “tamed” – a challenge to the human faculties to exercise and extend themselves. This will be a world in which heroism is possible, in which good causes can be believed in, improvement of self and others can be sought with a clear eye and a clean conscience. Guilt is a straightforward question of responsible and deliberate delinquency; virtue, of responsible and deliberate obedience. There is always a right answer….

    In contrast, another will see the world as not merely difficult, but well-nigh intolerable, in no intelligible sense a challenge or an opportunity. This world represents sheer human defeat. In a sense it has no heroes: it has tragic protagonists, whose motivation is too unclear for them to be credibly heroic. Even its busiest agents are victims. Moral or social improvement is clouded by the certainty of failure and regression; and guilt and virtue are elusive and ambivalent ideas. Responsible and deliberate choice is the least part of motivation, good or ill. There are seldom right answers.

    Augustine, a man of many triumphs and accolades, also suffered “the scars of countless unintelligible hurts,” as do we all. His vision of the Christian journey was not of a willed victorious life, but of the way of Christ, who, from his first gasping breath to his last, willingly identified with humans writhing in pain.

    And I, with my weakness and helplessness in the face of humanity’s suffering and my own brokenness, can only draw near to the manger. There I find the one thing I can do: pick up the crying baby and soothe, rock, stroke, and sing to a helpless child. I cannot fix things. I cannot undo “blue” or shorten the longest night. I can only croon sweet words of hope, of the kind of peace the world does not give, of steadfast love.

    We have not come like Eastern kings
    With gifts upon the pommel lying.
    Our hands are empty, and we came
    Because we heard a baby crying.

    We have not come like questing knights
    With fiery swords and banners flying.
    We heard a call and hurried here –
    The call was like a baby crying.

    But we have come with open hearts
    From places where the torch is dying.
    We seek a manger and a cross
    Because we heard a baby crying.

     —Philip Britts

    Contributed By KathleenAMulhern Kathleen A. Mulhern

    Kathleen A. Mulhern is a writer, speaker, and historian.

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