When Hope And History Don't Rhyme
We should let the darkness of the world into the Nativity story and the light of Christ into our hearts. They both have their place in the world God has come to rescue, but not yet rescued.
U2’s Bono, picking up on a phrase of his compatriot Seamus Heaney, has sung:
Jesus in the song you wrote
the words are sticking in my throat
peace on earth
hear it every Christmas time
but hope and history won’t rhyme
so what’s it worth
this peace on earth?
This modern psalm of lament sits rather uneasily with the rather sentimental image we cling to of the Nativity. The stable scene has become so cosy in popular imagination that you can almost picture the chorus of warbling Disney sopranos as the credits scroll.
It is a cliché that Christmas is for children and if we mean by that the wonder of finding presents round the tree then most would agree. But if we imply the Nativity scene is for children only we turn it into a fairy story that has no more relevance for us than Rapunzel or Snow White. We need to re-imagine this story and let it speak to us in ways that are uncomfortable in the Christmas season but which can sustain us the year round.
God became human in Jesus. The creator of the universe confined himself to the length and strength of a baby; the maker of the distant stars choosing to exist through a thin umbilical chord. This baby would be believed on as the light of the world, but at that moment he was no more than the faint flicker of a tea-light. And there were many who wanted to snuff that light out.
The blanket massacre of local young children by Herod in his calculated plan to extinguish the life of Jesus is one dimension to the Christmas story we would rather not dwell on. Our reluctance to think about this gives us another excuse not to grapple with the question of innocent suffering. Some people don’t want to think too deeply about this because they sense there might not be an answer at the end of it and that frightens them. Yet God intends us to journey down this road voluntarily. After all, many are compelled to.
The song of the angels celebrating peace on earth echoed over a town that would shortly be drowned out by the wailing of bereaved mothers. Clearly, in becoming human, God took stunning risks not just with himself but with the welfare of others. There is a modern saying about there being no such thing as precision war: that no matter how clever the technology, innocent people are still killed. It would seem the reverse is also true: there would seem to be no such thing as precision peace. Christians believe that God’s reign of peace has been inaugurated in the person of Jesus, but the massacre of small children in Bethlehem was the first evidence of collateral damage. An early warning that there would be persistent casualties in the conflict between darkness and light.
If we hold to a naïve and simplistic portrait of the Nativity, we neglect resources for handling human suffering. By embracing the darker side to this story, we gain a truer insight into the struggle for God in becoming human and how costly this would prove for many and for him. After all, if we are tempted to think that God is callously or neglectfully indifferent to human suffering, we should reflect on his experience of being human. Born without ceremony in a stable plagued with bugs; survived an early assassination plot; became a refugee without home or status; endured menacing opposition to his job; tortured to death at the age of thirty-three. This is suffering beyond the remit of most of us.
And yet from it life has been changed for ever. Once light had entered the world, the darkness would never extinguish it. This darkness has not disappeared, but it has been mortally pierced and shall one day give way to it like the night does to the dawn. Hope and history may not rhyme, but then the best poems usually don’t.
It may be cosier to ignore the darkness when we can, but this is no basis for faith because it avoids the evidence around us while simultaneously giving us the scope to excuse it within us. If we are serious about wanting to change the world, by definition we should begin with ourselves. Jesus gave no quarter to those who judged the failings of others while ignoring the darkness in their own lives.
We should let the darkness of the world into this Nativity story and let the light of Christ into our hearts. They both have their place in the world God has come to rescue, but not yet rescued.
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