2014’s coming to an end. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, or my news feed has adapted, or I’m following the right people and sources, but — it really does seem to me that this year was an especially terrible one. If I had ever been in doubt of the depravity of man and the groaning of creation, 2014 firmly establishes them. MH370 disappeared, taking with it 200+ lives. 300 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria, still yet to be rescued — not forgetting the thousands killed by Boko Haram as they raided villages and burned churches. In Rotherham, England, reports of 1,400 girls being raped over a decade, and maybe worse still, that police and social workers knew it was happening all along. Israel and Palestine, bombing and blasting. Then MH17 with another 300 lives. The Ebola epidemic: a death toll of more than 7000 and rising. ISIS in Iraq and Syria, beheading and raping, with a suspected death count of 10,000. Just a week ago, a hostage situation in Sydney, ending with two deaths. The next day, 140 dead in a school attack in Pakistan.
When the #ICantBreathe hashtag first went viral after the non-indictment in the Eric Garner case, I remember reading an article by Fred Sanders in which he encourages Christians in the U.S. to think of #ICantBreathe as ‘a punch in the gut followed by another punch in the gut, with no time in between to catch a breath’. He was referring to racial tensions in the States, but when we hear of yet another disaster or yet another tragedy or yet another death or yet another massacre, it feels exactly like that — a punch in the gut followed by another punch in the gut, with no time to know how to respond and mourn and pray. Before we’ve settled down and recalibrated and maybe let these issues fade a little in our memory, yet another comes on its heels, reminding us quite harshly that we no longer live in Eden, nor should we place our hopes in re-creating it ourselves.
In this time and mood, singing Christmas hymns seems gratuitous. Joy to the world? Nights aren’t silent when bombs are falling. Peace isn’t on earth, and Islamic extremists aren’t showing mercy. Maybe only this particular verse, from ‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day’, fits:
And in despair I bowed my head
‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said,
‘For hate is strong and mocks the song,
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.’
A theme that has been recurring to me throughout this year is the Christian call to be ’sorrowful, yet always rejoicing’ (2 Cor 6:10a). Along the same lines, Timothy Keller draws attention to this description of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings:
… in the wizard’s face he saw at first only lines of care and sorrow; though as he looked more intently he perceived that under all there was a great joy; a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing, were it to gush forth.
Elsewhere in LOTR, the elves are ‘sad but not unhappy’, both young and old.
First, sorrow. I think we live in a world where it’s easy to be outraged, but not so to feel true deep-down sorrow, and looking to Jesus’ example, there should be both. At Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus had some astonishing responses. There is the famously short verse, ‘He wept’ (Jn 11:36). Then three more phrases: He was ‘deeply moved’, ‘greatly troubled (v33), and later, ‘deeply moved again’ (v38). In the Greek, ‘deeply moved’ conveys not merely sadness when Jesus saw Mary and the other Jews’ weeping (v33), but also anger and being disturbed. Maybe at death. Maybe at those around Him who doubted His love and power.
Either way, our Christ was not a poker-faced statue of apathy towards real sin and suffering in this world, and neither should we be. So much of the media’s outrage occurs because these incidents serve and spur a narrative, but of all people, Christians should know to ‘weep with those who weep’ (Rom 12:15). If it is a fellow brother- or sister- in Christ who suffers, we weep because no part of a body is spared of pain when another part hurts (ask anyone who’s had a toothache). If a non-believer, we weep because we learn from a Saviour who ‘had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd’ (Mt 9:36). We must be sorrowful.
That’s not all though, because as Jeremy Treat says, ‘Jesus wept —and He promised to one day wipe away every tear. In times of tragedy we need both truths.’
Thus, the rejoicing. Among the many reasons I believe Christianity is true and superior is its eschatology, or rather, the fact that it has an eschatology at all. Vinoth Ramachandra puts it this way:
So our salvation lies not in an escape from this world but in the transformation of this world… You will not find hope for the world in any religious systems or philosophies of humankind. The biblical vision is unique. That is why when some say that there is salvation in other faiths I ask them, ‘What salvation are you talking about?’ No faith holds out a promise of eternal salvation for the world the way the cross and resurrection of Jesus do.
A pastor joked in the pulpit the other day that during good times we sing ‘This Is My Father’s World’, and in bad times we sing ‘This World Is Not My Home’. But shouldn’t we be singing both all the time? ‘This world is not my home, but one day it will be.’ The ultimate Christian hope is not that after death, we will be allocated to either heaven or hell, and live happily (or not) ever after. No. If that was the case, it wouldn’t be too different from the rest of the faiths, merely a matter of how we get to either place.
Our hope in three Rs (credits to Keller): Not just our souls, but our bodies, and all of creation, the whole world as we know it, will be redeemed, restored, and renewed, on that long-awaited day. The day when ‘He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away’ (Rev 21:4); the day when ‘creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God’ (Rom 8:21); the day when there will be ‘a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells’ (2 Pet 3:13).
Maybe this is precisely why we need Christmas: to remind us of that day.
We celebrate the first coming of Christ because we await the second. The first means so much because living in between the two, we tend to lose hope in the second, being just as forgetful as the Israelites ever were. In a lovely piece at TGC, Alyssa Poblete reminds us that ‘Joy to the World’ means little if it’s merely about a baby in a manger. But it means the world — literally, figuratively — if we think of it in reference to the second coming:
No more let sins and sorrow grow
Nor thorns infest the ground
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found!
Sin still proliferates, in us, in our systems, in our inventions. Sorrows weigh us down. Work is fruitless and futile most of the time. The curse is still found, er, everywhere. But one day! One blessed day!
Our poets see more than we do, Douglas Wilson says. Very true; our hymns are wiser than us. On Christmas Day, 151 years ago, Henry Longfellow, widowed, with 6 children, received news that his eldest might be permanently paralysed (a spine injury) in a war of a country with itself. The world was rife with injustice and unrighteousness; there was too much dissonance as he heard the Christmas bells that proclaimed peace and goodwill. He wrote a poem, and this is the last verse, after much wrestling (also, listen to Casting Crowns’ version):
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep,
‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail,’
With peace on earth, good-will to men.
Christmas is there to remind us that no matter how the world’s depravity clangs and roars, the bells of His coming will always ring louder and deeper. So ‘let nothing you dismay, remember Christ our Saviour was born on Christmas Day’, and in His death and resurrection He inaugurated His kingdom. That this kingdom has not yet been consummated is not because God dallies, but because He is merciful and desires that more should come to Him. Remember that ‘all the promises of God find their Yes in Him’ (2 Cor 1:20), and that if there’s one thing we can learn from Scripture, it’s that God is faithful. Remember, as we look up at sparkling, decorated trees, that there was once a Man who hung on a tree – accursed by God – so that the effects of the tree in Genesis 3 would be reversed. Remember, when we are told that 25th December is *actually* the winter solstice and Christians hijacked it, that the symbolism of celebrating the Light Of The World’s birth on the longest, darkest night of the year is more profound than any of us can comprehend.
Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing. So much is wrong, but it will be made right. Blessed, merry, Christmas.
O come Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thy advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.