I don’t know about the rest of you, but I certainly feel like this year I have “dwelt in the land of gloom,” as Isaiah says in the Christmas vigil’s first reading. It’s become almost cliché to mention the dread one feels waking up in the morning and glancing at the headlines and social media feeds. Right now, Isaiah‘s words resonate. The yokes feel particularly heavy; the darkness, thick; the violence of those in power, extreme.
To that desperate vision – cloaks rolled in blood, heavy yokes, violent taskmasters – Isaiah proclaims the radical in-breaking of God in the form of a child. A light shines in the darkness, the tools of oppression are smashed, the debris of war is burned away. In the midst of it all, the Holy One comes bearing strange and beautiful names: Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father Forever, Prince of Peace.
Luke fleshes out the fulfillment of this prophecy with the familiar story: the imperial census, the long journey, the birth, the stable, the shepherds, the angels. But this year, if you too feel like you’re in the land of gloom, try to hear it as if for the first time. Listen in a new way to what the angels say — four of the most radical words in the Bible:
Do not be afraid.
Right now, in the current conditions, fear seems like an eminently reasonable response. So much seems at stake; so much appears to be coming apart at the seams. But we believe that God came to us centuries ago in a troubled time; and despite surface appearances, God continues to be birthed anew amid the anguish of the world.
There is good news. There are tidings of great joy. And it comes in the vulnerable, unexpected package of a baby born into poverty in an occupied land. And it is announced first not to the powerful, but to the smelly, marginalized shepherds on the night watch.
The Christmas story turns upside-down what we think we know about power, about importance, about where hope lies. The Christmas story invites us to risk joy, despite all evidence to the contrary, for that risk makes the kin-dom of God ever more present. To paraphrase Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, joy is the infallible sign of Emmanuel – God-with-us.
So let us look to the problems that remain not with anxiety or dread, but with compassion and hope for the wonders that grace can perform among us and through us. Let us pay attention to the marginalized people of our times, for God shows up to them first. Let us trust that beyond the pain and hard labor of birth comes, against all odds, the joy of new life.
- Look at the names given to the Messiah by Isaiah – which one speaks to you, and why?
- What would it look like to “risk joy” in this Christmas season?
- Where in your life do you need to hear the invitation, “Do not be afraid?”
Katie Lacz is a mother, an M.Div., and a spiritual director living outside Boulder, CO. A former Jesuit Volunteer (Raleigh ’06-’07), she continues to seek the magis while chasing her curly-haired toddler.