Who Lives in the Land of Deep Darkness?
by Barbara Jurgensen (November / December 2001 • Volume 17 • Number 6)
We need the beautiful elements of the Lukan story, the angel choir, and the wondrous birth. But we need them to be kept in tension by the human struggles of the story's participants.
There was a knock at the door.
When I answered it, there stood Fritz (names have been changed in this article), a Vietnam veteran, shivering in a threadbare old coat.
"You got any food?" he asked.
I handed him one of the bags we kept there in the hallway of the parish house for such emergencies. He checked through the contents, then handed me back the box of dry elbow macaroni.
"You still sleeping in that shed behind someone's house?" I asked, "unbeknownst to them?"
"With nowhere to cook?"
"These cold nights, you could go over to the shelter at Peace Church, you know. They have sandwiches, coffee, cookies, sleeping mats, blankets, clean clothes, music...."
"Sometimes I do, but being around a lot of people like that can make me pretty shaky. Well, thanks." He turned and was gone.
I went back upstairs to continue working on the sermon for Christmas Eve. The text was the familiar Christmas story, Luke 2:1-20. Everyone already knew it by heart. What could I say that would make it freshly meaningful?
As I looked out the window, I saw a very pregnant teenager walking by, pushing a little two-year-old boy in a stroller. When Abby's mother had discovered her condition, she had kicked her out of the house. Abby had wandered the aging Chicago neighborhood, sleeping in entryways, until she finally found a single mother who needed someone to care for her son while she worked. She invited Abby to move in, and the arrangement was apparently working out for both of them.
But would she be allowed to stay on after her own child was born? If not, where would she go?
I reread the Luke passage, the account of a young woman named Mary who was pregnant without being married. What had her parents said when they found out? Is that one of the reasons she made such a quick trip up to the hill country to visit her relative Elizabeth, and stayed there three months? According to the law, she could have been put to death by stoning.
What about Joseph? Into my mind came a picture of Merit, the young man with cerebral palsy who had dropped by and worshiped with us the previous Sunday. He had struggled to make his way down the aisle on crutches. Struggled to stand up and sing. Struggled to tell me after the service that he'd been living with his sister, but now she was getting married, and he had to move into a group home, which didn't feel comfortable. So he spent most of his time wandering the streetswhere passersby, thinking he was drunk, laughed at him.
When Joseph learned about Mary's situation, he had wanted to dismiss her quietlyuntil an angel told him to stay with her. What did her claims as to who was the other parent of the child do for his standing in the community? Did the men of Nazareth laugh at him, "Oh sure, Joseph, sure, it was the Holy Spirit. We all know that!"
What about Jesus? Did the mothers of the other kids in the neighborhood warn them not to play with this little boy who'd been born out of wedlock? Was he ever accepted on the sandlot?
And what about the place where Jesus was born, a cave used as a barnhow much more homeless could Mary, Joseph, and Jesus have been?
And what about the shepherds, the lowest people on the social ladder of that day? Smelly, dirty (how could they be otherwise, working day and night with sheep?), looked down on by everyone, not fit to come into polite society.
Then and Now
These were the characters of the Lukan drama: homeless, outcast, ridiculed, pregnant without benefit of marriage, born to an unwed teenager, and looked down upon by "good" people.
Not too different from the street people around the church where I worked: the homeless man who slept in a pile of old rags, haunted by his memories of a war; the pregnant teenager booted out of her home; the young man with cerebral palsy who'd never be able to live a usual life.
What about the people of our own congregation? Though they all may have a roof over their heads, how many are, in a way, homeless? How many are living in homes shattered by desertion, divorce, violence, or death? By anger, selfishness, vindictiveness? By mental illness, drunkenness, obsessive gambling, drugs, unfaithfulness, or trouble with the law?
And how many in our congregation are looked down on for physical disabilities, or for their race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and age?
And how many are hungry
starved, evenfor acceptance, forgiveness, understanding, and even a little human kindness?
The Christmas story seems to have three levels: the folk around the manger, our street people, and the members of our congregation.
The Christmas narrative is not just sweetness and lighta contented baby, a demure mother, a wise and supportive father, angels with heavenly voices, amazed shepherdseven though sometimes we have tended to describe it that way.
It is about people who were hurting, even the people in the makeshift stable.
And it is about a Lord who stooped as low as possible to gather all into his loving care. No one was too lowly, broken, homeless or hungry, looked down upon or forsaken, to be sought out by him.
|Christmas cannot be understood apart from the darkness of the world.|
The Essential Tension
The Swedish theologian Gustaf Aulen1 liked to remind us that all things in the Christian life need to be held in an essential tension. God's love keeps God's justice from becoming too harsh; God's justice keeps God's love from becoming too sticky and sentimental.
We need the beautiful elements of the Lukan story, the angel choir, and the wondrous birth. But we need them to be kept in tension by the human struggles of the story's participants. And these, in turn, need to be kept in tension by the stories of our street people and by our own story as a congregation.
It's not just the folk of Naphtali and Zebulun who live in a land of deep darkness; we all are the people of Isaiah 9. We are the homeless, the hungry, and the abandoned. To paraphrase St. Augustine, "You have created us to live with you in your kingdom, O Lord, and we are homeless until we find our home with you. You have created us with a great hunger for you, and we will not be satisfied until we feast at your table. You have created us to be your beloved children, and we feel orphaned until we hear you call us your delighted-in sons and daughters."
But, sadly, we are also those who pass by and ignore the hungry, the homeless, and the abandoned. C. G. Jung2 said that society is the sum total of individuals in need of redemption. That's us.
In Gravity and Grace, Joseph Sittler asks how it is possible that all down through the ages the figure of the crucified one upon the cross has been the center of devotional gravity, the center of human pain and torment.3 The answer, he believes, is that unless the Lord takes the tormented shape of our human existence, he isn't Lord enough.
To be the source of our order, he must become the horror of our disorder.
Christmas cannot be understood apart from this world's darkness. Only then can the coming of the Light be Good News.
Barbara Jurgensen is a retired pastor and professor at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio, and a writer.
1. Gustaf Aulen, The Faith of the Christian Church (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1960).
2. C.G. Jung, The Undiscovered Self (New York: New American Library, 1958), p. 68.
3. Joseph Sittler, Gravity and Grace: Reflections and Provocations (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986), p. 34.