There is a certain gallows humor among hospital chaplains, I’ve been told — it’s a way to blow off steam in the midst of carrying so much grief for so many people. But it’s something that doesn’t generally leak out beyond those who live the experience, because there’s still some reverence for what is sacred about being with people in such vulnerable moments.
Something similar shows up in some activist circles — the ones where people do this work of trying to transform broken systems all the time. People make flippant comments about elected officials that they would never make in mixed company as a way of blowing off steam about their sisyphean task.
But there’s a fine line about who can make the jokes and to whom. And at the heart of it, I think, is hope.
Unlike Sisyphus, who knew the boulder would not make it to the top of the hill and he’d have to start all over again, chaplains and activists share a sense of hope: hope that people will know comfort and perhaps catharsis in the midst of pain and suffering, or hope that the lot of the poor will not always be so impossible.
Talk about holding Christmas in your heart all through the year.
According to the gospel of Matthew 1:23: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Immanuel (God with us)”
I always hear this scripture the way Handel set it to music, followed by “O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion,” since I got to sing that with my high school voice instructor.
We welcome into the world a baby we are promised will always be with us. Hope means that we hold onto that promise even when it doesn’t feel so close. And it is a promise that calls us to act as if it is true: we act in the world as if God is with us, in our midst, supporting and encouraging and challenging and nudging us as God does throughout scripture, throughout the abolition movement, throughout World War II, throughout the civil rights movement, and today.
I lived in serious fear all throughout college that I would be mistaken for one of those kinds of Christians: earnest, humorless, saccharine, without irony. I was determined to disprove it all (although I could never suppress my earnestness; I still can’t). I wanted people to take me seriously and not think me naive.
When we look back on history, though, the Christians who have acted most harmfully have been the misguided zealots. But the Christians who have acted almost as harmfully have been the “realists:”
- Pope Pius XII turning a blind eye to the mass murder of Jews in the hopes of Catholics remaining untouched
- Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian Realism leading him from support of civil rights to support of the Vietnam War because his fear of communism outweighed his desire for his country to behave ethically.
- My own denomination’s Alexander Campbell taking years to take a stand against slavery because he wanted to preserve the “unity” of his Christian unity movement. (Thank the Lord Jesus Christ for his less realist sister Jane Campbell McKeever, the passionate abolitionist who worked on the underground railroad in Pennsylvania.)
In this day and age, the world invites us to be cycnical, to be world weary, to be hipster ironic.
But that’s not what the world needs.
The world needs people who believe we can bring healing, who believe we can bring transformation, who believe we can bring Beloved Community. The world needs people who will reach for the moon because when they fail, they will land among the stars.
This season leaves us with a challenging message for this day and age:
Christianity is no place for the cynic.
It is grounded in hope.
If anyone (especially anyone proclaiming Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior) asks me, “How’s that hopey changey thing workin’ out for ya?” I hope I have the presence of mind to respond, “Each Christmas, we welcome into the world a baby that we KNOW will get murdered brutally by a police state. And yet we always welcome him with hope, because in the face of things unseen, we believe that is not the end of the story.”
Is it naive to believe the world can be made better by our actions? Absolutely, because there have been awful times throughout our history.
And never once has world-weary cynicism healed broken moments in history. Never once has all-knowing realism created a glimpse of God’s kindom here on earth as it is in heaven. Never once has hipster irony created love and joy and possibility in the midst of oppression and violence. Those things are coping mechanisms at best and callousness at worst.
What has created healing and glimpses of the kindom and joy and love and possibility is the belief that a baby could possibly be God With Us.
May we keep that part of Christmas in our hearts always, no matter who tries to take it away.