Last Christmas Eve my grandmother died. As I wrote in an earlier post, I sat by her bedside in the hours before her death, breathing deeply with her, holding her hand, and waiting for her new Advent. I was aware at the time that Christmas would never again be the same for me. I had received a terrible gift–the knowledge that Christmas is not about carefree family suppers, platters of chocolate, and pink-cheeked babies. It is not about happiness, at least not in some superficial way. It is about nothing less than the unity of heaven and earth and the breaking of the infinite into our finite human lives. That God enters our world as a small and defenseless child and allows us to care for him in his vulnerability, ought to shatter our illusions about God and humanity. Instead, we’ve become rather used to the idea, inured to the terror and the glory of the Word made Flesh.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about our complacency and our calling in light of this most wondrous inbreaking:
It is very remarkable that we face the thought that God is coming so calmly, whereas previously peoples trembled at the day of God, whereas the world fell into trembling when Jesus Christ walked over the Earth. That is why we find it so strange when we see the marks of God in the world so often together with the marks of human suffering, with the marks of the cross on Golgotha. We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little Earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.
Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness. God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love. God makes us happy as only children can be happy. God wants to always be with us, wherever we may be–in our sin, in our suffering and death. We are no longer alone; God is with us. We are no longer homeless; a bit of the eternal home itself has moved into us. Therefore we adults can rejoice deeply within our hearts under the Christmas tree, perhaps much more than the children are able. We know that God’s goodness will once again draw near. We think of all of God’s goodness that came our way last year and sense something of this marvelous home. Jesus comes in judgment and grace. ‘Behold I stand at the door…Open wide the gates!’
God, who is Truth and Wisdom and Word, makes a home in us to shatter the illusion of our self-sufficiency. And if our hearts are more stable than inn, all the better. God doesn’t seem to mind being laid in the straw. Perhaps God actually prefers this dross to the fantasies of comfort, wealth, and warmth with which we would prefer to surround ourselves.
Such was my experience last Christmas. My grandmother’s bedroom was a creche, and no experience of waiting in a church could have been holier. I sat in vigil with my grandmother, her increasingly ragged breaths like a woman in labor, waiting for God to reach out and take her hand. I also sat with Christ in vigil, waiting for my grandmother’s fuller birth into the eternal. Word and Flesh joined together, our breaths a kind of chant–both sanctus and ‘O Come, Emmanuel.’ In that waiting, my grandmother and I were both changed, both more fully born.
Come, Emmanuel, come, and make your home in us.
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