Friday, December 25, 2009

Pain, Christmas and… Gratitude?

    The streets are quiet. From the lofty view on the eighth floor, the world seems especially still tonight, and the only sound on the balcony is the wind flapping an unhinged piece of plastic against one of the trees below me. It is after 3am, and Christmas morning is still a few hours away. Most of the city remains locked in their holiday slumber, as I should be, but the pain has returned and sleep is not an option.

    It's been a rough two weeks. An abscessed tooth on the left side of my mouth has rejected the recent spate of antibiotics, and so after only a day or so of relief, the pain has returned on the eve of this Christmas morning to push me from my sleep. The pain is intense and comes in waves, and often feels as though someone is sawing a knife into my gums. Before the dentist was able to assign me antibiotics nearly a week ago, I'd gone through nearly ten extra strength tylenol a day, to little effect. It was only hours before I'd hoped that the pain was finally gone, but it has returned in full force, and after another night of little or no sleep, I am awake. In many ways, I feel like I've lost two weeks, because it's hard to keep track of the days when you're not sleeping and you never know when another staggering wave of pain will thrash your existence and bring you, often literally, to your knees.    And yet this morning, despite the physical agony I find myself in, I can't help feeling just a little grateful. I know it sounds like ridiculous, like one of those pat answers we hand out to people who are suffering to make ourselves feel better because we feel all right and well, we don't know what else to say. And as much as I'd like to not feel as if the dentist forgot his needle in my mouth, it does remind me of the people in this world who are in much greater pain. More than infected tissue brushing against a nerve, we are surrounded by people who suffer from recurring emotional scars that are ripped open, again and again, especially during holidays like Christmas. And while we are not meant to give up our own happiness or fulfillment to continually ponder the fates of those who are struggling, a reminder about the nature of humanity can serve, I think, to help us deal with our own pain and the struggles we all endure.


    There was a time not so long ago when Christianity was the faith of the suffering, the wounded, and the broken hearted. It was the faith that called its God the 'Man of Sorrows'. A faith that believed the Incarnation had been revealed in a poor, itinerant Rabbi during a tempestuous and violent period in the world's history. And a faith that viewed life in the light of its hardship and promised only hope.

    That faith, that version of Christianity, is no longer popular in North America or in most Western cultures. Instead, we look for the shiny red package with a bow on top, the faith that promises more goodies if only you'll choose it. Jesus, who has become a Western icon, is hard to distinguish from the morass of proto-masculine figures of the sports and entertainment world. In this world he isn't Swedish, as some would say, but more like the former gridiron star turned politician who has a good feel for people and a kind word for the women and children. He is marketable and likable and eminently successful. Massive churches and entire denominations design their advertising campaigns around him. Books promote his willingness to make you successful. Movies and music promise peace and joy if you'll just surrender to him… and donate twenty dollars to their ministry. Jesus is the Everyman, the star who fills the role that everyone can identify with, and he commands a huge market and a massive commission. With such a Saviour, we don't have much time for pain, just a quick, easy smile for the cameras before we flash forward to our next promotional visit. The underlying basis for humanity, the tragedy that enjoins us, is not important, not so long as we can get people into our building to recite our mantras and buy our stuff. The New Jesus wants to make You Better! The New Jesus doesn't want you to even think about the Negative. Focus on the Goodness! Focus on the Love! Okay, turn here, now smile… Good. Got it.

    In the world where entertainment is news and news is entertainment, the New Jesus strides across the room with a smile and a quip and presents for everyone.

    I don't like the New Jesus very much. He may earn twenty million for a movie and write best selling books that are sold in huge churches, and he might have a TV show that is shown to millions around the world and a rich following dressed in three piece suits and earnest faces, but I don't trust him. I know that I'm supposed to, know that I'm supposed to have more faith and just 'believe', but no matter how relevant or counter cultural or easy it all seems to believe in him, it just doesn't feel right. I admit that I don't know what God is supposed to feel like or look like, but when I see the New Jesus, the Jesus you see on your TV sets and the Jesus you find advertised in and by so many churches, it only makes me want to change the channel.


    Some of my friends don't like Christmas very much. In fact, there are quite a few people who don't like our current holiday creation, for a variety of reasons. For some, it is simply a matter of being too commercial, a created holiday for stores that has nothing to do with God or anything else. For others however, Christmas is a painful time because of what it recalls. Painful childhood memories of dysfunctional and abusive homes. Loved ones we've lost and lost loves. Suicide rates hit their peak during the Christmas season, and as every youth worker knows, it is often hardest on the young, who are forced to watch glamorized tales of perfect families and holiday rancor before heading home to a world filled with pain. For them, and many others, Christmas is far worse than even the worst sort of physical pain, because there is no operation and no painkiller that can take away the deep ache inside, an ache that Christmas seems only to highlight. For them, December 25th is the yearly reminder that God doesn't love them or doesn't exist. The New Jesus does not make them want to change the channel so much as it does break the television. Of course, there's another Jesus, but we don't talk about him much these days…


    On a wind swept Judean hillside, the night is cold, and a young couple huddles together over a fire. Stars blanket the night sky like glittering diamonds, but the woman doesn't notice. Her legs and arms ache from the ride and she runs a trembling hand over her stomach. The time is soon. Her husband looks on anxiously and tries to wrap her in his blanket to keep her warm. The fire has little effect. Her hands feel numb with cold, though her forehead is covered in sweat. He tries to get her to eat, but she isn't hungry. They need a place to stay. It's soon, she tells him. He nods and puts out the fire. He has his own worries. Normally, the inns would have plenty of room, but with the Census, the roads are packed with travelers, and the young couple does not have enough money to buy someone out of their room. He is a simple man, and he worries about his young wife. He feels guilty that he cannot do better for her.

    He moves them back onto the road, which even now sees a fair share of travelers. No one speaks to them, however. No one offers them help, though the woman is clearly pregnant and struggling to stay on their donkey. Everyone is headed somewhere else. Everyone except for us, the man thinks. Alone in his thoughts, he reaches up to hold his wife's hand. Her fingers feel cold in his callused palm. They go as fast as they dare, but it is still slow going and the night is cold. He prays under his breath for Yahweh to help, but God seems absent this night. For years he was content in his work, until he met her, when suddenly things changed. He never could have anticipated this, however.

    She grasps her husband's hand and holds tight. She remembers the strange vision, and the visit from her cousin, but all she can think about is the pain. Everything hurts. She wonders why no one offers them help. But these are not people she grew up with. They are strangers, culled from the countryside at the beckons of their King, all anxious to be home. She sighs. The thought of a home, like the thought of no pain, is too much to hold onto. There is only the next minute. The next hour. The child must come, but she wonders why God has made this so difficult. Why he has chosen her? If he has chosen her. Doubts come and the pain is relentless, but she holds onto her husband's hand and tries to hide her face from the cold.

    The stable is dirty and stinks of cows and manure. Does it have to be here, she asks? Her husband nods, the misery and worry etched onto his face. She smiles at him, though her heart is filled with fear. She will not have any help. Not her mother or aunt or anyone else. She will have to do it alone. They will have to do it alone.

    He watches the way his wife accepts their fate, accepts his poverty, and smiles at him. Momentarily he hates himself for it and curses God for putting him in such a position. He sighs and asks forgiveness, grateful that his wife has a place to lie down. There is so much to be angry about, but the stable is better than the road. He thinks about his family and wishes his parents were still alive. He puts the thought out of his head. There is no one else now. Just him and his wife and the baby.

    Oh Yahweh, where are you?


    The gurgling sound seems to rise above the cacophony of the animals and he stares in wonder at the little boy. His wife is soaked in sweat but she is smiling. God be praised, he thinks, they've done it. What he doesn't understand is why they've had to do it alone. Or have they? He worries about where they will live and the rumors of war. He worries about the little boy being healthy and his wife getting sick.

    His wife holds up the boy and hands it to him. He takes it, cradling it in his arms, surprised by how light the baby is, how warm he feels. He asks his wife if its normal, but she just smiles as if he's said something in Greek. His worries vanish for the moment as he runs a finger over the boy's dark, wrinkled skin. He rocks him gently while his wife dozes. He wants to plan for the future, plan for his family, figure out a way to ensure they can survive the cold winters and blazing summers, but for the moment he is lost as he stares into his little one's eyes, and all he can do is whisper a quiet thanks.

    Merry Christmas, everyone.