A recent discussion among friends was really more of a lament. Christmas feels odd this year, we said.
That’s not really true. “Odd” is the wrong word. Maybe “sorrowful” or at least some reflection of the idea that it doesn’t feel, well, Christmas-y. Whatever that means.
Singing songs about comfort and joy feels weird when our interconnected world confronts me with the reality of Aleppo. I can’t rid myself of these images. The faraway look on a toddler’s face, so far from my own son who bounces with joy from one piece of furniture to another while making up songs that flow so freely from his heart. The ensuing arguments about the treatment of such refugees only worsen the feeling, since we’re not discussing nameless, faceless cases. I’ve seen them which makes looking past them that much harder.
This holiday season only exacerbates the tension between the joy of Christmas and the lived-out reality of those running from destruction. After all, I’m preaching from a story that sounds eerily similar: a genocidal decree intent on the slaughter of innocent children, the blessed hope for the nations somehow cowering as a vulnerable baby sheltered by his poor, oppressed, minority family. What if a photographer could have captured the look on Jesus’ face or his mother, Mary, as they fled certain death under Herod’s rule.
I’m reminded of Jürgen Moltmann’s beautiful words about the power of the juxtaposition — the defenseless child disarming the rest of us — in his book, The Power of the Powerless. He writes:
The kingdom of peace comes through a child, and liberation is bestowed on the people who become as children: disarmingingly defenseless, disarming through their defenselessness, and making others defenseless because they themselves are so disarming. After the prophet’s (Isaiah 9) mighty visions of the destruction of all power and the forceful annihilation of all coercion, we are now suddenly face to face with this inconspicuous child. It sounds so paradoxical that some interpreters have assumed that this is a later interpolation. The prisoners who have to fight for their rights also find it difficult to understand how this child can help them. But it is really quite logical. For what the prophet says about the eternal peace of God which satisfies our longings can only come to meet us, whether we are frightened slaves or aggressive masters, in the form of a child. A child is defenseless. A child is innocent. A child is the beginning of new life. His defenselessness makes our armaments superfluous. We can put away the rifles and open our clenched fists. His innocence redeems us from the curse of the evil act that is bound to breed ever more evil. We no longer have to go on like this. And his birth opens up for us the future of a life in peace that is different from all life hitherto, since that life was bound up with death. ‘For to us a child is born. To us a son is given. The government is upon his shoulders.’ The liberator becomes a pleading child in our world, armed to the teeth as it is. And this child will become the liberator for the new world of peace. That is why his rule means life, not death; peace, not war; freedom, not oppression. This sovereignty lies on the defenseless innocent and hopeful shoulders of this child. This makes our fresh start into the future meaningful and possible. The oppressed will be free from oppression. And they will also be free from the dreams of darkness, the visions of revenge. They stand up and rejoice, and their rejoicing frees their masters too from their brutal armaments. The oppressors with their cudgels, their iron shoes and their bloody coats will be freed from their grim machinations and will leave the poor in peace. For the new human being has been born, and a new humanity which no longer knows either masters or slaves, either oppressed or oppressors. This is God’s initiative on behalf of this betrayed and tormented humanity. ‘The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.’ It is the zeal of his ardent love. * * * But is this really possible here and now, or is it just a dream? There is nothing against dreams if they are good ones. The prophet gave the people in darkness, and us, this unforgettable dream. We should remain true to it. But he could only see the shadowy outline of the name of the divine child, born for the freedom of the world; he called him Wonderful Counselor, Mighty Hero, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. The New Testament proclaims to us the person himself. He is Jesus Christ, the child in the manger, the preacher on the mount, the tormented man on the cross, the risen liberator. So, according to the New Testament the dream of a liberator, and the dream of peace, is not merely a dream. The liberator is already present and his power is already among us. We can follow him, even today making visible something of the peace, liberty and righteousness of the kingdom that he will complete. It is no longer impossible. It has become possible for us in fellowship with him. Let us share in his new creation of the world and — born again to a living hope — live as new men and women. The zeal of the Lord be with us all.