Dreaming Of A Dark Christmas
By Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush
It’s Christmas time and the organized merriment surrounding me feels like gilded trompe d’oil when I consider the reality of the world that has come into full relief in recent months.
I confess that since the election in America of a candidate who represents the reversal of the progress towards a more just and compassionate world, my thoughts continue to be plagued by confused second guesses, my heart laden with fear, and my spirit challenged with despair.
It is only with reluctance that I turn towards Christmas and the story that has been central to my life for over half a century. Yet perhaps as never before, the story of the birth of Jesus renders itself uncomfortably vivid and relevant. Inside what can only be described as a harrowing and terrifying story, I find myself dreaming of a dark Christmas and am strengthened as I encounter the spirit of unquenchable hope deep within the story of Jesus’ birth.
Our Christmas story starts with the great declaration by Mary, who, while pregnant with Jesus, reminds us that God often chooses those who the rest of the world might view as low to lift up and call blessed. Mary takes her place in God’s liberation work as she sings of the Lord who will “scatter the proud, bring down the powerful, lift up the lowly, fill the hungry with good things and send away the rich.” These words must have vibrated within her, as Jesus will later echo his mother’s words to the multitudes in what are know as the Beatitudes.
Where does Mary get this courage and this certainty of faith? It’s not because those who governed her tiny province were focused on increasing equality and serving the people justly. In fact, the traditional Christmas story starts out with a registry of all things. Ring any bells? Mary and Joseph are forced (!) by decree of the emperor to travel to Bethlehem to register who they were, from what nation and, we must assume, what religion.
Once they get to the city, famously, there is no room for them at the inn so they must go out back and sleep with the animals. It is there — amidst what we can only imagine is the excrement of the manger and the crush of bodies, both human and animal, and on a floor of dirt and rocks and straw — that Jesus is born.
It is night. It is winter. It is cold. Resources to care for both mother and child are limited to the love of Joseph, his tender touch and gentle soothing, and the clothes on their back to swaddle a newborn child and comfort a labor-worn mother. Soon the shepherds arrive, with a message of spiritual power, led in the dark by a star to be witnesses to the wondrous birth of a Savior in the form of a vulnerable child, of God made flesh, who chose this humble community in a dark place, in a dangerous time.
And a dangerous time it was.
Three wise men arrive from a foreign land; speaking a foreign tongue, practicing a foreign religion, offering gifts to Jesus. Yet they also reveal the deadly treachery of Herod who will kill every infant in the land in his effort to destroy this life-giving, world-changing, innocent whose central mission is to love those who the world scorns, to call them blessed, and to welcome them into the realm of God.
Yet within this dark difficult story, there is a resonant joy. Within all of them, Mary, Joseph, the wise men, the shepherds, there glows a hope, that they were meant to be used by God to change the world. There radiates a faith in the holy promise that was made that first Christmas that that God would be with us, Emmanuel, even in the darkness. Especially within the darkness.
I’m dreaming of a dark Christmas because the story of Christmas is dark even as it is beautiful. The Christmas story of the birth of the dark skinned Jesus is hopeful, not because it is easy or optimistic or cheerful but because it goes to the heart of the reality of a dangerous, unjust, and violent world and says “this too shall be redeemed.”
This Christmas, those of us who call upon Jesus, must crowd in the darkness of the manger, each of us weak with labor of birthing new life, aware of the powers that would destroy, yet powerful in our solidarity with both humanity and the divine.
Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel.
Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush is Senior Vice President at Auburn Seminary and Editor of Voices.