There are the moments that the words don’t reach… – Hamilton
It is easy to write when the sun shines. All is well, the Muse descends, and the words sparkle into being. It is even easier to write when it rains because each drop startles you into alertness; in that moment, you are vividly alive and aware of each one pressing into your skin. Even when the rain is undesirable, threatening, relentless, at least you know where you stand and react accordingly.
But when a darkness creeps over you, heavy yet hollow, with no rain, no slice of lightning even to illuminate the trees, the ground, the people around you, words seem to fail.
Suffering can carry that sort of darkness. We are human, and because of that, we exist within boundaries of how much pain we can bear before our consciousness cracks under the weight. When unchecked, it swells and swells until the pain both drowns our senses and eviscerates us, abandoning us to a cavity of grief.
We try to grasp the meaning of it, the lessons propelling it, but when no answer emerges, the jaded darkness draws in greedily, ready for our surrender. It’s too much, too much to handle or manage, so why not feel nothing? Numbness is an addictive alternative.
I don’t why know why hundreds of innocent people are getting murdered in Aleppo. I don’t know why black men and women are getting gunned down every week in the United States. I don’t know why some people get cancer and others like me never see illness.
There are “logical” reasons underlying all of these, but that’s not the why we seek. We want to know why THEM, why US, why is OUR world allowed to be so horrendous and heartbreaking. Maybe knowing the why lessens the weight of it all.
I sat in a dark hospital room with a friend as she lay sick, and I asked myself why. Her eyes could not handle the light, and I hated seeing her in pain. I couldn’t do anything to fix it. I couldn’t free her veins from the insidious force that had clamped around them. Clunky machines crowded her bed, beeping and buzzing, and I could do nothing. She didn’t deserve this, didn’t even know she was sick…so why was this happening?
I fought my tears and failed, and I prayed.
Sitting with her for over a week in the darkness, a slow understanding began to kindle. See, I am always looking for some new revelation, some explosive encounter with God that will make everything clear, draw thick lines that edge the paths I should follow so I won’t get lost. I am always seeking the big mountaintop experience that will throw everything hidden into relief. But as I huddled in the shadows, thoughts straining to reach some cognizance about pain and death and suffering, God did make something clear: I don’t need anything new.
I don’t need a new book or theological discipline or spiritual revelation. I need to be re-awakened to what I’ve already been given.
As a follower of Christ for years, I know the Bible stories, the Gospel message. Yet this past year has grounded into me the realization that I have dulled their power in shaping my reality and daily life. These ideas have become like well-worn jeans so I have forgotten that I was once naked and in need of covering. I once needed a Savior…and I still do.
I have taken these fundamental stories for granted, and this neglect constrains my vision. I miss out on the Great Story that transcends my pain, my loved ones’ pain, and points to the only One who can offer relief. When a crisis hits, the power wielded by that story fades into the periphery when it should define everything.
Christmas is part of that Great Story, and we either round its edges or fashion it into whatever tool we need to justify our cause. A pastor of mine described this action as us trying force Jesus into the mold of who we desire him to be, whether that be our therapist, our social justice warrior, our political revolutionary. We want Jesus’ power over death, over sickness, over injustice–and that’s not a bad thing. But when I look at the Christmas story again, I’m struck most by this: Jesus came to us weak and vulnerable and small.
Our world was lost in the dark, mired in war and grief, and it would have been washed out by a Sun. We expected a mighty king but might have cowered had he arrived in that form. Instead, the Son descended like a glimmer, cradled in frailty. This did not negate the power he wielded as God, but that power manifested itself in the way he demonstrated weakness when among us. He knew what it was like to live as a refugee, to cry when friends died, to experience persecution for his ethnicity, to toil at a low-income job, to face rejection because what good could come from Galilee? And then he died in the most horrific way, broken and mocked and tortured. With every shaking, choked breath he could have tipped his finger and saved himself, but he suffered to save us. He took ownership of all suffering so suffering could no longer own us.
When we say Jesus is Emmanuel, we declare to the world that he not only chose to familiarize himself with our pain, but he also conquered it. This awareness does not dissolve the reality of pain, but instead places it into a framework where we see and acknowledge Jesus’ sovereignty over pain and His love for us experiencing pain. He paved a way for us to know comfort and peace in Him even as our world lumbers towards the ultimate healing he promises. We haven’t reached that end yet, but as I wrote in my previous post, the Gospel truth we cling to illuminates our steps as we struggle together through the evils that remain and the hurt they cause.
Light has always been associated with Christmas (as dozens of sweetly bland Netflix holiday films testify to), but that light holds weight to me in a way that it didn’t before. Not the twinkling lights strung along fences and rooftops, but I think of the brilliance and warmth of a light that shoves away the shadows and reclaims Earth simply by touching it again. A star in the East, a moon hovered over a cramped cave. God drew down to Earth in the form of a weak, tiny baby, and light followed.
Fixing on that light brings clarity to my surroundings, tenebrous as they are in physicality. Cliche as it sounds, I am re-discovering that at the heart of Christmas lies a light that eclipses all suffering. This is not an opiate, but rather a way to endure and allow Jesus’ love for me to define the way I engage with pain. I move forward into this season with the certainty that Christmas introduced the changing of the world, a massive upheaval where sickness no longer reigns, death no longer conquers, and suffering no longer dictates our destinies.
I did not expect to feel peace in that dark room with my friend. But this indescribable peace emanated through the blank walls, and I knew her pain did not go unnoticed by her Creator. I didn’t need the answer to why; I just needed to know that it wasn’t the end all–and it isn’t.
Our words lack the ability to reach and minister to our pain. But John 1 names Jesus the very Word of God, the one present at the beginning and the source of all beginnings, and that Word reached us. We do not see all the whys or hows, but we see Him, and that is enough.
There is a grace too powerful to name
We push away what we can never understand
We push away the unimaginable
May God bless you this Christmas and remind you that Jesus knows weakness, vulnerability, and pain. He is with us when the darkness threatens to swallow us, and He draws us close to the light of His love, a fierce, unyielding love that no sickness or weapon can touch. He came down to us because He loves us, and despite all the unimaginable horrors around us, we know hope by knowing Him. That hope will ground us in the days to come. I leave you with one of my favorite passages from Lord of the Rings, and I pray that you too will see the Christmas story with new eyes:
There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. – The Land of Shadow, The Return of the King