Watching the grotesque magic-lantern show of a largely violent and unChristian world, what is there to say that does not sound like sermonizing or — worse — like that smug if truthful line in Band Aid’s song, “Tonight thank God it’s them instead of you.”
Yet there is a view of the events of Christmas presented by the Bible that applies beyond the Christian world, of interest to the suffering as well as to the feasting. “All this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying: Behold a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted, is, God with us.”
The Christians hears the good news that this child Jesus saves mankind from sin and death. But the prophet Isaiah links the coming of Emmanuel with invasions by Assyrians and Babylonians, of devastated vineyards given over to briars and thorns. That sort of thing has happened in every century since. Famine and sorrow are the yearly fruit of war and enmity.
During devastation, bombing, starvation and cruelty, anguished men and women ask: where is God? The assertion of Christmas is that God, Emmanuel, is with us, not as the chastising power perceived by Isaiah, but as the fellow sufferer with all people who suffer. Jesus is homeless, a refugee escaping a murderous ruler, Herod, a co-heir with all babies to the thousand natural shocks of human flesh.
Christmas is no narrow declaration of dogma read out in church. Instead it dares the big assertion that, in the end, goodness wins because Emmanuel, God with us, suffers with us. This is the paradox, that the unarmed Prince of Peace wins the war. The vulnerability of the baby vanquishes the enemy of mankind, as the poet Robert Southwell wrote 400 years ago:
All hell doth at his presence quake,
Though he himselfe for cold doe shake:
For in this weake unarmed wise,
The gates of hell he will surprise.
Excerpted from The (London) Daily Telegraph, 2004