If Christ was born into the world to redeem it, why doesn’t our world look more redeemed? Why is our world still full of loneliness, anxiety, betrayals, sickness, poverty, violence, war, and death? What did Christ’s birth into our world really change?
These aren’t irreverent questions; they’re the right questions. Only in struggling to answer them do we begin to understand more deeply the mystery of Christ. What is that mystery?
In the gospels, one of the angels who announces Jesus’ birth, tells us: “They shall name him Emmanuel” (which means `God is with us.”) What do those words mean?
Sometimes it’s helpful to proceed by the via negativa, namely, by explaining what something doesn’t mean. In this case, the fact that Christ is born into our world does not mean that those who believe in him will be spared the pain, loneliness, seasons of sickness, heartaches, betrayals, anxieties, fears, and humiliations that afflict everyone else. Faith offers no one an escape from pain. Moreover, believers, just like unbelievers, will suffer too the darkness of doubt, the painful fear that the heavens are empty. Faith in Christ doesn’t remove any of the pains inherent within the human condition, including the pain of doubting God’s existence. Faith promises no magic pass-cards.
What it does promise is that God will be with us so that we do not have to walk through loneliness, sickness, violence, anxiety, fear, and death alone. We have a hand to grasp, a love to embrace, a truth to cling to, and a power to sustain us (even through death itself). We walk in the same world as everyone else, but, like a young child holding on to her mother’s hand as she walks into school for the first time, we are not alone, a trusted, sustaining, guiding love walks with us. God doesn’t remove us from what can hurt us, but walks with us amidst it all.
But that explanation too can feel pretty empty on any given day. If God is walking beside us, hand in ours, why don’t we feel that more really? Why does God often seem non-existent, not with us at all?
Because believers, like everyone else, are not exempt from the trial of faith, from the darkness of doubt, from those emotional and spiritual dark nights that can crush us, bring us to our knees, and can make us cry out in fear that God has abandoned us, as happened to Jesus on the cross. Part of being human (and faith isn’t some magic bullet immunizing us against the human condition) is the experience of God’s seeming absence.
So how can we say that “God is with us” when mostly it feels like God isn’t there for us? That’s a complex question and a full answer would necessitate a discussion on why, in the nature of faith, God’s reality is often felt more like an absence than a presence. But, without entering into a full-blown discussion on this, allow me to give just one perspective:
In the Jewish scriptures there’s a famous incident where Moses asks God to see his face. God answers that this is impossible because nobody can see God’s face and live. When Moses persists in his demand, God offers a compromise: He tells Moses that he will place him in a cleft in the rocks, put his hand over Moses’s face, and then pass by, so that Moses will get to see his, God’s, back, though never his face.
What’s meant by this? Among other things, that we are wise not to be overly naive about the powerful, sacred, archetypal energies that flow through us. Even when something is beautiful and good, like sex for instance, it doesn’t mean we don’t have to treat with sacred caution. We’re wise to accord things their proper respect, to keep our shoes off before the burning bush.
But there’s a wonderful sub-text here too which can help explain why we so often think that God is absent in our lives. Generally we struggle to feel God in the present moment, to see God’s face in the here and now. In the present, God often seems absent. Yet, when we turn around and look back in our lives, when we look back on our story, we more easily see how God has been there all along and how we have walked in a divine presence, protection, guidance, and love that were imperceptible at the time but are clear in retrospect. We see God more clearly in our past than in our present. We see God’s back more than we see God’s face.
This can be helpful in understanding how Christ is present to us, even when it doesn’t always feel like it.
Faith doesn’t promise us a ladder to crawl out of the pains of life, it promises a friend to walk with through those pains. Mostly though it’s only when we look back in our lives that we see that this friend has always been there.