I don’t know about you, but I just cringe when in the face of grave human tragedy and suffering I hear someone say “This was God’s will” or “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” Really? Because it sure seems that some people get a crushing helping of grief on occasion. So many of us have suffered so much…endured such loss…some of our friends and neighbors to the north had their hearts broken in an unimaginable way last month in Oxford.
Many preach that the heart of Jesus’ message is that “God has a wonderful plan for our lives” but we know our faith offers no one an escape from suffering. In fact, our experience tells us that on the contrary, being a welcoming, accepting person in this world more often than not leads directly TO suffering. Exhibit A: the crucifix in church or hanging around your neck right now.
Jesus’ death on the cross is a reflection of the world we have fashioned in which it is dangerous and sometimes even fatal to be a loving, compassionate person–and it also shows us that God’s answer to suffering is to be with us in it. This is the heart of the Good News Jesus came to share.
The first and primary claim of the gospel is “God is here.” The word “Emmanuel,” another name for Jesus, actually means; “God with us.”
God so loved us that he sent Jesus to come be with us right in our very own history to show us the way out of our darkness. To show us that we had God pegged all wrong. Jesus showed us that God isn’t some kind of judgmental fascist demanding obedience, aloof and removed from us, on some golden throne up in heaven ready to smote us the second we take a false step. Rather, God decided to enter our world as a poor, vulnerable baby; a refugee born in a barn with not so much as a bed. The light of the world slept his first night in a feeding trough – and this soft, humble entrance and the beautiful life of love, tradegy and hope that followed changed everything.
The mystery of God’s life with us is that the very moment of catastrophe is, in truth, the moment of liberation. Jesus redeemed suffering by entering into it with us – loving us right up until the end, even as we put him to death. He gave us a demonstration of the only force with the power to bring about change; that of unconditional, self-giving love and mercy and we, as his disciples, are called to follow him in this demonstration to one another, and to the world. The essence of the good news we are bid to share is that God loves us more than we can imagine and is with us every minute of every day so that we do not have to walk through our suffering alone.
Fr. Ron Rolheiser tells a story about a woman who, in the midst of great suffering and despair, wanders into her church. Alone, she closes her eyes and fervently prays, “God, I am in great pain and I need to know that you care. I know I’m not supposed to ask for miracles or signs, but I’m at the end of my rope. Please, I beg of you, give me a sign of your presence.” After a long while, she suddenly feels a hand on her shoulder! And for a moment her stomach flips and she is paralyzed! Could it be God is actually giving her the sign she asked for? Slowly she turns and opens her eyes and sees behind her one of her friends. As their eyes meet, the woman can’t hide her disappointment. Her friend says, “I didn’t mean to disturb you, but you seem very upset, can I help?” The woman explains about her prayer and how she thought her friend was God touching her on the shoulder and her friend asks “But, what hand did you think God would use?”
Jesus is God incarnate – or embodied. That is the good news that we celebrate on this great feast day of Christmas. And Jesus invites us to follow him in continuing this incarnation by being the love that transforms the world; The Body of Christ. As St. Teresa of Avila writes
“Christ has no body now but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which He looks
compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good.
Yours are the hands, with which He blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are His body…
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
— St. Teresa of Ávila (attributed)