Christmas: What do we believe ?

It will soon be Christmas.Mary and JosephMary and Joseph

In the Gospel (Lk 21:12-19), Jesus invites his disciples to recognise the signs of the times, and to be not misled by false Messiahs – and there is no shortage of those! He continues his teaching by exhorting us not to give up in discouragement when faced by the frightening events wrecking our world. The way the world is going, historical events, the influence of evil on our own lives, all these give us food for thought. And often, they also make us wonder: if God does exist, how can he allow all that to happen?
And in fact, that is exactly what our faith is all about. Yes, I do believe in this God who is so silent, who seems absent and unable to act to counteract the hatred, the contempt, the frantic power seeking, the worship of money, the gross selfishness or indifference which are such features of our present time.

I believe in this God Jesus is constantly referring to. To believe in this God, we have first to believe in Jesus. The Gospel accounts depict him as poor, or at least as someone very ordinary. From the beginning to the end, he comes across as someone committed to loving, someone attentive to and on the side of all those who are suffering, despised, marginalised or excluded. Indeed, he shares their fate. When we look at him, we are a long way from the “omnipotence” which we would like to see when we think about “God”. The God revealed through his Son Jesus seems quite the opposite of “omnipotent”. He is vulnerable, one of us – in fact, he’s particularly criticised and shamed. Yet he tells us that where he is, there is to be found his Father’s Kingdom: present, living, operating in precisely this “powerlessness”, in this vulnerability he knows so well.

We are a few weeks away from Christmas. Two Gospels describe the birth of Jesus. He was born in Bethlehem, a stranger, on the road. If he had been the son of a prince or other famous person, he would have been honoured, there would have been room for him at the inn. If he had been a child from that village, Bethlehem, he would have been born in the warmth of a home. But God is not a prince, nor a well-known “someone”; Jesus was born on the margins of society. In our present day world, all people can talk about is “security”, but Jesus was born in insecurity; our God is not a God of security, but quite the opposite. That’s why we says to us again and again: “Fear not, little flock...” Jesus does not try to give us security:

“Anyone who tries to preserve his life will lose it; and anyone who loses it will keep it safe.” (Lk 17:33).
“Men will seize you and persecute you; they will hand you over (...) to imprisonment (...) because of my name.”(Lk 21:12).

Jesus invites us to commit ourselves, to take risks, to put our life and reputation on the line to follow him, and then to continue down the same road after he has ceased to be physically present.

“God among us”, Emmanuel, starts life as a frail child, a child born “on the road”, vulnerable, uncomfortable, insecure, and with no grand media coverage. God is “born” among us already marginalised: misunderstood and unwelcome. Surprisingly, though, the Gospels do not depict his marginality and poverty as a sad or shameful event: on the contrary, the angels rejoice! We should not forget that.

And after Bethlehem, there was Nazareth. We know virtually nothing about Jesus’ life in that place except that he lived there for more than twenty years. Like that of his neighbours, his life was ignored. Yet it’s out of that silence, from the depths of such anonymity that was to spring that message of such importance that he passed on to us. His life, any life, is about love!

Jesus emerges from anonymity through love, for love is never silent. Jesus forsakes a reasonable level of security for the unknown, and as at the moment of his birth, he is on the road again. Like John the Baptist, he quickly becomes marginalised; he does not seek to be, but is rejected by his own because he does not conform to the current values of his society:
“For John came, neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He is possessed”. The Son of Man came, eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners”...” (Mt 11:18-19).
And the story ends in Jerusalem, where he is condemned to death because he is a nuisance, and executed so that they can be rid of him. Yet he was the man of listening and forgiveness, the man of the Covenant. The one who came so that all might have life in its fullness, and did not judge or condemn. What a contradiction! There was none closer to God than he, and we did not recognise him...

God disconcerts us! He turns up where we didn’t expect him. But is it we who allow ourselves to be disconcerted? It’s not easy to leave all our security behind to follow Jesus in the insecurity that was his, which was to lead to his final loneliness – for who was at the foot of the cross? Who understood Jesus while he was alive?

Christmas. Yes, I believe in the child, I believe that God is present in the world’s events, but does not manipulate them. I believe in the God that Jesus revealed to us, a God who is present where are to be found weakness, injured love and an orphaned and exploited humanity. I believe in a God who does not play about with the events of history or ride rough shod over our freedom of action, however dear the consequences may cost us. I believe in Jesus, who did not ignore evil, but in the face of it offered only love and forgiveness.

It will soon be Christmas. Will we know how to welcome him? When I think of a mother, or of a couple expecting its first child, I am reminded of the disruption that first born child causes! No more quiet nights – and even the daytime is dominated by the presence of the newborn. Without actually imposing itself, it occupies all its parents’ time, thoughts and feelings, and they run around and agitate on its behalf, for their conscience and sense of responsibility are deeply challenged by its fragility and dependence, and in particular by that capacity for loving which is to be found within us all.

Jesus does not impose himself. God is amidst us over the centuries without imposing himself.flameflame Will we be able to welcome his silence, which is disturbing, frightening and challenging? Will we recognise him when we meet him in the places where we least expect it? Through the love and forgiveness we are capable of showing, will our own lives give the lie to his apparent absence and lack of intervention?

I believe so.

May this season of Advent bring us the certitude that the insecurity experienced by Jesus is the path to life.

I wish you all a very peaceful Christmas night.