the risk of birth

Here’s a Madeleine L’Engle poem that I always think of during Christmastime:

Sometimes I suspect that our insistence on the use of the word “unprecedented” and our slack-jawed confusion at the state of things is grounded in a sense of historical and situational hubris. Things feel awful and chaotic right now. If you are a practiced doomscroller, like me, the benefits of knowing what’s going on around the world can be quickly outweighed by our collective alarmist pessimism. In general, modern-day American humans are fairly ahistorical. We don’t understand ourselves as situated within a very long, cosmic sweep of time. This year feels different than last year, and the last five years feel like they’re trending in a worsening line, and it is very easy to get very fatalistic very quick.

And, to be honest, the reality of climate change and the destruction of the planet ARE irreversible, doggedly slouching toward assured self-destruction if we humans don’t take swift and decisive action to change our ways.

But other things, like plagues and tyranny, are, in the grand scope of human existence, just part of human existence. Yes, American democracy is a farce, but democracy in America has always been a farce. Yes, we are still in the midst of an on-going global pandemic that is killing millions, but this has happened many times before in the course of human history. Yes, our society is crushing the poorest and most vulnerable among us in favor of lining the pockets of the already obscenely rich, but isn’t it sort of utopian to imagine that human society would ever trend any other way?

I’m not saying that utopia is impossible – every bit of scripture I read and everything I know about following Jesus is command and invitation and encouragement to live against this grain of human tendency toward violence and oppression. I’m all in on following Jesus into another way of being human together. It is the raw material of my entire theological framework.

But somewhere along the line, we started assuming that all of that would be…easy. Or given. Or unchallenged. Somewhere along the line – at least in my privileged, middle-class, white, southern, american christian formation – the status quo became acceptable, and we started assuming that things would, for the most part, work out. We got the idea that we wouldn’t have to suffer or grieve or be cast out or challenged or faced with impossible, life-altering decisions.

Which was, to be fair, our own dang fault. Jesus never says that living another way or practicing mercy or pursuing peace or being people of grace and justice will be easy. In fact, he says things like “this will tear families apart.” He tells people to give up burying their dead parents in order to follow him. He predicts weeping and gnashing of teeth, wars and rumors of war, earthquakes and famines that are “only the beginning of the suffering.”

Some of us know this better than others. Those of us who have been on the underside of empire, who have lived intimately with the suffering inflicted by unjust and callous systems of the world understand that the status quo is usually pretty awful. That has always been true, and it is still true, today.

All of this was true on the night that Jesus was born – his parents had just been forced by the government to undertake an expensive, dangerous journey in order for their Adjusted Gross Income to be accurate in the IRS accounting system. Plagues and famine were stories woven into Mary and Joseph’s religious upbringing. As soon as Jesus was born, a jealous king would kill all the baby boys in town in a cruel attempt to keep a hold on his immense political power, and Jesus’ own family would be forced to flee their home as refugees.

Sure, yes, this time is awful. Lament is real and necessary and a spiritual practice gifted to us by God. We SHOULD notice and name and cry out about all the ways that life sucks. And, we might also remind ourselves that none of this is actually “unprecedented.” All of this HAS happened before. Pandemics HAVE raged and killed percentages of the human population. Governments HAVE abused their people and their power. Families HAVE been torn apart because some want to follow Jesus and others are hell-bent on serving only themselves.

That’s the whole point, actually. It’s why Jesus came, in the first place. Not to institute some sort of exit plan and gift those of us who are fed up with the state of things a parachute and a push out of this standard reality, but to remind us and invited us and reassure us that IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY. That there is ANOTHER WAY OF LIVING. That God did not create us to live selfishly unto ourselves, but that we are created as people who belong to one another, called to love one another, practice mercy, and work together so that everyone might experience it.

Jesus wasn’t born in a palace, and he didn’t run for office. His preaching didn’t show up in the headlines or on CNN, and both the religious authorities and political powers hated his presence so much that they colluded to have him assassinated. Christmas isn’t meant to be pablum, insipid insistence that “all is calm” or “everything will be fine.” Christmas is God tearing open the heavens and coming down to earth – in the midst of all of it, all the violence, all the death, all the grief, all the suffering, all the joy, all the delight, all the love, all the mercy – to show us that another way is possible.

So, if you’re feeling less than festive right now, you are in good company. This is no time for a child to be born, right? But here, in the midst of omicron raging and gun sales skyrocketing and democracy crumbling; now, in the midst of hurricanes swirling and drought extending and industry emitting on; right here and right now, love still takes the risk of birth. We are always invited in, to take the risks ourselves.

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