Well, there it went.
Christmas Day is in the past. Now decorations are feeling tired, Santa is feeling exhausted, and credit cards are feeling used. Our dinner leftovers have leftovers left over from their leftovers.
Technically Christmas is the place on the calendar that celebrates the end of a prolonged period of darkness and christians remember the long-anticipated arrival of the Messiah as the climax of history.
It isn’t easy for us to imagine long, extended times of waiting; we live in a culture of impatience. I’m embarrassed to say some of my biggest annoyances have to do with the loss of control while I’m waiting. It’s painfully true that my impatience is simply the frustration of someone who has been spoiled by a lifetime of opportunity.
The good news is that our long wait for Christmas is finally finished, but it’s also puzzling news. I mean, what about the evil that remained in the world after Jesus came? Doesn’t darkness still hold power?
Sometimes it feels like we’re still waiting. And what must it be like for those who wait endlessly with no choices, no prospects, no future?
Scrooge’s ‘surplus population’
I read recently that large populations of the third world will likely not have access to a covid vaccination until 2024. That’s three years after we will have had it. You and I will wait with certainty, but they will wait with only hope.
It’s not right, and it’s not fair, but most people in history have hoped endlessly for opportunity, fairness, safety. The concepts of freedom, democracy, self-improvement, middle classes, social programs, are only available to our microscopic corner of history.
Millions of people have been displaced or killed because of wars they had no control over or investment in. What about the Jewish people who were constantly invaded, separated, crushed? How about Africans who were chattel in an economy that kidnapped and sold them as slaves to the other side of the ocean? For hundreds of years workers laboured in inhumane mines and factories. How about those who were disabled or dependent on others who didn’t care? Millions of innocents have been born into hopeless poverty or famine or disease. How many people have died early and unfairly with barely a ripple in the world?
Did they have hope? If so, what did it look like? Did they tire from all the waiting?
And we wait
What is waiting like for you? Perhaps you have recently been given a glimpse into the dark side of life: an illness; a loss; changed circumstances; a discouragement; the separation and fear of Covid-19. And we wait, wondering if there will ever be a time of normalcy or healing or health. In effect we are feeling, Where is Jesus? Why am I still waiting?
But I have learned something important in my meagre sixty-plus years (actually I’ve learned two things, but the other one isn’t useful…).
I’ve learned that light shines all the time, even during the darkness. Theologically it is the tension between the kingdom of God that is present and the kingdom of God that is still to come. Or to say it another way, Jesus is with us all the time even while we’re waiting.
Me. Confused as a teenager about my life. Sobered by marriage and fatherhood while I was an immature so-and-so. Labouring in purposeless jobs and wondering who I was. Wrestling with crises in faith as a twenty-something, then again years later, then more deeply years after that. The terrible illness and passing of my wife.
In each of those cases there was plenty of waiting and lostness. In each of those circumstances the future was bleak and unknowable and my future was nothing more than blurred possibilities.
Now I can look back and see that, while each of those periods held confusion and pain, they also fertilized the deepest insights, directions, grounding, and delights in my life. God somehow gently forced his way into the twisting, slippery roads of my journey – hovering ahead of me but also surrounding and filling me. My difficult waiting gave birth to things that were wider and deeper.
Christians often dream impatiently of a future-perfect heaven while overlooking the present-perfect world. But don’t miss the importance of the nativity and what it represents. The story of Jesus’ birth isn’t timeless just because of angels or stars, or even because of its hope of rescue.
There is greater truth to learn from the baby in the manger – the truth that our hearts long for. God chooses to be with us.
Henri Nouwen wrote these words in his collection of meditations called, You are the Beloved. “By calling God Emmanuel, we recognize God’s commitment to live in solidarity with us, to share our joys and pains, to defend and protect us, and to suffer all of life with us.”
Or as the classic carol O Holy Night expresses it:
The Kings of kings lay thus in lowly manger In all our trials born to be our friend
Yes, there is hope for you to cling even now. Jesus is with you as you open ourself to him; as you “give him your heart”. That’s the best part of the manger story.