How violently, how violently, the wondrous Gift is giv’n…
“How violently, how violently, the wondrous Gift is giv’n…”
That’s not how the third verse of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” begins, of course. The line written by the hymn-writer Philips Brooks reads, “How silently, how silently, the wondrous Gift is giv’n…”
But I wonder if my version (with apologies to Brooks) is more accurate in describing the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. First, as a father twice-over, “silently” is not the word that comes to mind when I think of childbirth, or a child. Secondly, at the heart of Matthew’s Christmas story is the account of a young child who poses such a threat to the most powerful man of the land that he kills all the other sons of that age-group in the village in order to get rid of him (Matt 2.1-20). It is a massacre. It is a violent story. It is horrific and tragic.
Jesus was born in a place and at a time full of trouble, violence and fear. Our Christmas cards show peaceful, snow-covered, hushed scenes. But even before Jesus was born, a plot was hatched to murder him. Even before he could walk, he was a refugee on the run. But, as this Gospel insists, as Pastor Ebi has pointed out, this was part of the Master’s (God’s) plan to fulfil His promise to the Jews, and ultimately to all humanity. This is how Israel’s Messiah, the world’s Lord and Rescuer, was to appear. This is how God would save his people from sin, how God would restore true peace and justice to the whole world.
It’s a strange way for God to make his appearance on the stage of human history. Why not with greater pomp and fanfare, in a more royal or religious setting? That’s what the Magi were thinking, when they came to Jerusalem. Of course the King of the Jews would be born in comfort and glory in a palace in the Holy City. Or would he? Maybe there is a deeper logic to this. As Tom Wright says, “No point in arriving in comfort, when the world is in misery; no point having an easy life, when the world suffers violence and injustice! If he is to be Emmanuel, God-with-us, he must be with us where the pain is.” (Matthew for Everyone).
For some of us, Christmas is a difficult time because all the celebrations around trigger memories and emotions of pain or loss, especially when that loss occurs suddenly, or violently. A table-setting at Christmas dinner which will no longer be filled. Gifts under the tree are half what they used to be. Pain is real. Sometimes it is raw, and some aspects of “superficial Christmas” just pick at the scabs of the wound. But the promise of real Christmas is this: Emmanuel—God is with us. He was there in the pain in Bethlehem. He was there in OUR pain at Calvary. He is there in our pain today.
When one part of the body hurts, we all feel it. I’m going to look out for hurting people this Advent season. I don’t know how the pain will be resolved. But I do know that our Emmanuel is already there in the pain, and that pain will be redeemed in the end (Isa 65.17-25; Rev 21.1-4). In the meantime, I’m just going to try to speak Christ and represent Christ in the painful situation. Our God is with us.