Looking to Christmas in the shadow of death

Christmas is coming, and to many it seems unbearable. When sickness and death are unfolding all around us, when arrogant strongmen stalk the earth, when poverty is becoming only more entrenched, when our own families, finances and mental health are feeling fragile, even shattered, how can we possibly celebrate? 

Perhaps by remembering just how dark it was on that first Christmas day. Jesus was not born into comfortable prosperity in a bucolic community renowned for peace, stability or self-governance. Instead, he was born to an unwed mother, a nobody, who was denied a room in which to give birth, and who soon afterwards sought asylum in Egypt. And he was born into a land fought over by successive armies and scarred by war. The forests had been razed; the fields salted; and the people humiliated, even slaughtered in the streets. Those still living were impossibly taxed; hunger stalked every ordinary home. One in three children never made it to adulthood; less than 3% of men made it to 50; and women died in childbirth in hideous numbers. Tinpot dictators used human bloodsports to entertain the masses, and the empire was controlled by a megalomaniac who insisted he, Caesar Augustus, was the Son of God to whom all must bow down in worship.

This, then, is the backdrop to the pretty little stable scene, where a baby was born into dung-scented hay, welcomed by those rejected by the holiness set, and acclaimed as God’s Son by angel song; and this baby, called Immanuel or God-with-us, is God’s direct challenge to the lies and sin of the world. For God does not validate the status quo. Instead, God chooses to be found in dark and lowly places; God chooses to operate in occupied territories and oppressive situations; God chooses to speak through the outcast, the stranger, and those who have been shamed; God chooses to preside at feeding troughs and at modest tables: and it is not from the halls of power but from humble places that the love which saves erupts into life.

Filled by the Holy Spirit, Zechariah prophesied: ‘By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high has broken upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.’ (Luke 1:78-79). So acknowledge the darkness and the shadow of death, but don’t stop there. Advent is a time not just of waiting, but of watching and preparing for the coming of the light of love. In the darkness, love is quickening. Can you sense it kicking? And how are you preparing for its birth?


Distilled from a longer piece; read it here. Emailed to Sanctuary on 2 December 2020 © Sanctuary, 2020. Image credit: Mitchell Hollander on Unsplash.

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