Christmas Eve, 2019
Isaiah says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.” Christmas, indeed, is a time when “light shines in the darkness,” that is, at least if you live in the northern hemisphere. But for those who live in the tropics or southern hemisphere, this text might not seem to pair very well with Christmas.
Another reality that complicates this dark-to-light image is that we live in a country whose history has been mired by the sins of slavery and racism for 400 years and counting. Throughout US history people with “dark” skin have consistently been associated with evil, Godlessness, and sin. Simultaneously, people with “light” skin have been hailed as bearers of the light of Christ, the light that brings salvation, the light that the darkness has not overcome. The rhetoric of white nationalism today claims that the light of God is the light-skinned person, and the darkness from which we need to be rescued is the rise of people of color. This white-supremacist narrative is completely sinful and a total distortion of God’s salvation in Christ.
God reveals—through Isaiah in verses 4-5—what the move from darkness to light is really about: an end to political oppression, warfare, and violence.
For the yoke of their burden
and the bar across their shoulders
the rod of their oppressor
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
Any narrative that claims that racial uniformity is necessary for political union is trapped by the sin of idolatry. Isaiah goes on to reveal in the very next verse what it is that saves us from the sins of political oppression, warfare, and violence: a baby born among us. Racial or ethnic uniformity will not now—nor will it ever—save us from our sins. Only the birth of Christ can do that.
Such a birth is transformative because of what it brings about (salvation), but also because of how it brings it about. God chooses to be born poor, and his first earthly state is homelessness. His life was lived at the margins of society, and he thereby showed us how false our in-groups really are. Jesus’ power was a power to be poor, a power to be vulnerable, a power to follow. Such a birth transforms our notions of what it means to wield power, and it transforms us.
I’ve heard it said that God loves us just as we are, and the Incarnation—the birth of Christ in this world—says so. But I’ve also heard that God loves us too much to let us stay here, which is also why God chose to become human. To hold together these two truths at the same time invites us into a transformation of heart, head, and hands. In the Zen tradition they say: “You are perfect just the way we are, and you could use a little work.” The birth of Christ isn’t just about warm fuzzies, thought it certainly is that. If Christmas just brought warm fuzzies, it wouldn’t be Christ who is born, but rather a puppy. God’s hopeful, humble, and awe-inspiring birth is unsettling, for nothing can stay the same as it was. The entire universe is shifting.
Our souls are set at peace because the fulfillment of our longing has arrived. The birth of God in our world and in our hearts is the only thing that can bring us rest. And at the same time, this closeness of God is so intimate it scares us, for nothing is hidden anymore, nothing is lacking anymore. There is no sanctuary in the future, for the birth of Christ is here. Henri Nouwen puts it this way:
“The Master is coming—not tomorrow, but today, not next year, but this year, not after all our misery has passed, but in the middle of it, not in another place but right here where we are standing” (Nouwen, Daily Readings, 58).
Christ is born, here, now. In choosing humanity God chooses each of us. In choosing poverty, God calls each of us to end it. In choosing the present moment, God opens our hearts to the gift that is Jesus, born among us, born within us. Not tomorrow…now.