I cherish the quiet of very early mornings on days like Christmas Eve, times when “not a creature is stirring, not even a mouse,” when a text or an email isn’t arriving, a tweet isn’t chirping, and no one is yet calling.
This morning, around 5:00, there were summer-like flashes of lightning, loud growls of thunder, and driving sheets of rain. My trembling dog sat in my lap, and was still only when I help him close to my chest.
The sights and sounds of this unseasonable storm were in stark contrast to the conditions of Christmas which are part of the fantasies of those of people who live in the northern hemisphere: snow gently falling, blanketing the ground, and seeming to muffle sound.
The storm seemed somehow right to me today. We face fiery threats of violence and hear rumbling warnings of trouble. We’re aware of suffering: physical pain, emotional brokenness, and spiritual struggle. Conditions for some people are anything but gentle and beautiful.
Our idealized images of Christmas blur some of the story’s starkest and therefore most helpful dimensions.
Mary and Joseph were migrants when Jesus was born; an occupying and oppressive government forced them onto the road to Bethlehem to “register”—which likely means to file the first-century equivalent of a tax return with a sure demand that they pay. The newborn Jesus was homeless.
According to Matthew, Joseph had a dream which warned him to take his wife and infant son to Egypt, rather than back to Nazareth, to protect the baby from the murderous rage of the monarch. Jesus was a political refugee.
Jesus was born in a storm, and this storm-child is the incarnation of divine love. Love does not depend on conditions—not the conditions around us or within us. It is, in profounder ways than we have realized, absolutely unconditional.
God is love, and Jesus—God made known in flesh and blood—embodies and gives love always: love for enemies, deniers, and betrayers; for the guilty and ashamed, sinners, for strugglers, sufferers, and seekers; and for exiles and outcasts.
The love of God made immanently present and palpably personal in Jesus is with us in every storm, stays with us, and, when the storm finally breaks, dances with us in the sunlight, laughs with us in the gentle breezes, and rests with us in green pastures.
Catholic theologian Hebert McCabe said: “But God is so present in everything in our world that we can easily forget him; we can think just of the natural causes of things, forgetting that they are all instruments of God’s love, that their acts are all divine acts” (God, Christ, and Us, p. 6)
Christmas is a celebration of God’s intimate and intricate presence in creation, of the Word made flesh and living among us, and of the Extraordinary which both inhabits and transcends every ordinary thing and person (though, as C. S. Lewis said, “Strictly speaking there are no ordinary people.”).
When the storms roil and rock our lives, it can seem that God is absent, distant, or disinterested. The Christmas truth is that God is in (not the cause of) the storm, in us as we endure and even grow through it, and at work with us and for us with the kind of love which heals and brings “great joy which is for us and all people, for in us this day and every day there is born to us a Savior.”