“You Are with Us, O God, in Darkness and in Light”

Those little waving fingers in the nativity video belonged to our daughter, Alice. It might appear she was greeting the baby Jesus. I can tell you that’s not what was going on. She was doing a very natural thing for a seven-year-old—trying to turn attention onto her polished red nails. This was, I assure you, the very best we could do in 2020. I deleted at least a dozen blooper videos in which Eliza smacked the baby Jesus down hard into Alice’s hand, or the holy child was suddenly dressed in a little red playdough cap, or the baby went flying across the room, or a screaming match ensued between the sisters, or Alice couldn’t reach the manger, tripped over her own feet and collapsed in giggles. The antics of my children are not the point, here though. This story is about me. Because, you see, instead of laughing, and simply enjoying the ridiculousness of the moment, I grew tense. I got mad. And then I got terribly sad about my own reaction.

In the course of several conversations lately, I’ve become aware of how angry many of us are. I hear rage at ordinary people who don’t take COVID seriously, rage at people in power who muddy public health messages and fail to support those in need. Personally, I feel irrationally furious about how this situation has destabilized the mental health and well-being of our family and so many others. I find that I’m pissed off about all sorts of little things that wouldn’t have bothered me in the past. And I know, deep down, that what’s underneath my anger are other emotions, like fear and anxiety, helplessness and aching sadness.

This year, I find that the nativity story resonates differently. The long ago and far away figures draw near and speak to me anew. I can see them huddled together for warmth and courage—small, vulnerable and insignificant against the backdrop of global events over which they have little control. Travel wasn’t safe for Mary and Joseph, either. And yet, the census required them to return to their ancestral village. I’ve been musing about how the census is not a dry statistical exercise. It is a story we tell about who we are, in a soul-deep kind of way, as we set out to determine who does and doesn’t count. Even as the Romans flexed their muscles, God bypassed their authority in announcing the birth of the Messiah. God notified a poor peasant family and some lowly, despised laborers that God was taking action in the world. Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds looked up into vastness of the night, and they received a revelation so compelling and powerful that it dwarfed the influence of any empire on earth. The dark sky twinkled and sang with a heavenly message: “This will be a sign for you. You will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” The child is a sign of God’s intention, God’s way of being, God’s method of working, God’s hopes and dreams.

You know how some conversations stay with you, cause you to ponder for many days afterward? I had such a talk recently with Amanda Fitze, who serves our community as a nurse in the ICU. Amanda told me it was all right to share some of what we discussed. She described the months and months of death. So many codes. So many futile chest compressions. So much death. She said it’s terrible to witness people die without the physical presence of their loved ones to bring comfort. It’s hard to have faith in humanity as the suffering goes on and on, and still, people refuse to believe and follow health guidelines. It’s maddening to deal with people who sick with COVID and yet remain in denial about the seriousness of this disease, even as they struggle to breathe. And it’s unbearable to step into a busy store where folks seem oblivious to the consequences of their actions.

It was heartbreaking and haunting to hear what Amanda and her colleagues are going through. And, yet, I smiled as she imagined what life might be like when this pandemic is over. She told me that even in the grief and exhaustion of these times, she’s excited to be going to school to become a nurse practitioner. As part of her program, she’s working on a project that involves teaching health care providers to give the best and most appropriate care to those recovering from gender transition surgery. She reflected on how supporting people in claiming their fullest and most authentic selves is a way of participating in birth, a way of welcoming new life, even amid all the death.

The child, Emmanuel, God-with-us, is a sign. But a sign of what? I’ve been pondering this question, this year especially. These times in which we live might leave us wondering, with the poet, if God really is with us.

We worry, God. Are you there? Are you there really? Does the covenant you made with us still hold? It’s clear to me, from a simple and honest assessment of this world what “God is with us” doesn’t mean. God is not “on our side.” God is not “in control.” God cannot spare us life’s pain.

And yet, there are signs that God, a different kind of God, is with us. The fragility of an infant is a sign. That same child’s resilience, and tenacious hunger to grow and thrive, is a sign.

The humble bands of cloth, their gift of security and comfort in a terrifying and wonderful world, are a sign.

The beauty of extended family making room for Joseph, Mary and Jesus, in their home is a sign.

Mary’s treasuring of it all is a sign.

For me, the meaning of this night of incarnation, this night in which God is born into a human body, is that God has come to collaborate with us. God-with-us is also an invitation to us to be with God. “Salvation” is not a rescue. It’s a partnership. We are not powerless victims of our circumstances, no matter how challenging they are. God is our ally in bringing to birth our best, most inspired selves. God’s qualities become our qualities, and guide the unfolding of our lives. We begin to see what God sees, to know as God knows. God works beside us to give flesh to goodness and justice, to breathe love, to create beauty, to make peace. And this collaboration with God has a ripple effect. It influences events. It changes the world, or at least some part of the world.

In the context of 2020, the Christmas Peace that Maya Angelou describes seems like an antidote, a vaccine, of sorts. Mary’s heartfelt treasuring and pondering suggests that peace of heart comes before peace in the world. As the poet articulates, peace is not just the absence of war. It is an inoculation that protects us from the toxicity that can come with anger, from sorrow that turns toward despair, from the helplessness we feel amid adversity. The gift of God’s peace is that God loves us and strengthens us, as we navigate all these realities. Peace is a message from the vast dark sky that offers a different understanding of the power and presence of God. Peace is a new language that translates our ordinary lives into a story about how God takes flesh and breathes in us. Peace comes to us when we collaborate with the God who collaborates with us. Amen.