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By Paul Baxley
“The word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
With those words, the Gospel of John describes theologically what happened in the birth of Jesus. The word (who was in the beginning with God and without whom nothing was made that was made) became a human being and lived among us. In Jesus, we see the glory of God. In Jesus, grace and truth abound with relentless love and abundant power. In Jesus, God is fully and absolutely present in human space and time. In Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph is told that the baby Mary carries is Emmanuel, “which means ‘God with us.’”
Beyond the sentimentality and the familiarity, Christmas is about a powerful truth. In Jesus Christ, God is with us…with us fully, with us in love, present among us in power. The baby Mary holds in her arms that first Christmas is God in human form. God is with us.
That message is always sheer grace. But I believe it is especially powerful in this second pandemic Christmas. About 650 days have passed since the coronavirus first remade our communities and our congregations in March 2020. That pandemic has not only challenged us all on its own, but it has also laid bare all the other deep challenges confronting this nation and all the nations of the world.
In the days leading up to this Christmas, the omicron variant has begun to run wild through cities and towns in this nation, confronting exhausted leaders in and beyond congregations with a whole new set of questions. A beautiful Christmas carol speaks honestly of a weary world, and there is no denying the deep weariness of this time. I was already deeply aware of growing exhaustion last winter and spring at the intersection of all the challenges we were facing, but as the delta variant surged, and now the omicron variant is surging, that exhaustion has reached nearly catastrophic levels and is impacting congregational leaders (ministers and lay leaders alike) alongside leaders in business, politics and other sectors. Families are experiencing that deep exhaustion. And people who have lived under the burden of poverty and injustice so much so that they were already exhausted before March 2020 are even more so now.
I can’t help but believe there was also deep exhaustion among those who gathered at the manger at the very first Christmas. Weren’t Mary and Joseph exhausted after traveling on foot for days in response to the emperor’s decree late in her pregnancy? Don’t we imagine those shepherds had to be exhausted from working nights out in the fields while also living in the grips of poverty and exclusion? Those who first saw the word become flesh and live among us were those who were tired, worn down and worn out.
The Christmas gospel is that God is with us, and even more that God is with us in all the seasons of life. God is absolutely with us in times of joy, celebration and flourishing. But God is also with us in our questions, our uncertainty, our anxiety and our exhaustion. God is with us when we feel incredibly close to divine love and power, but God is also with us when we are struggling with faith and meaning and purpose in life. When we see the baby in the manger, we know we have not been left alone or abandoned in the face of the world’s worst. No! In Jesus Christ, God loves us and is with us to make all things new, and nothing in all creation can separate us from that love.
So, I pray this Christmas we, as a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship family, will rest secure in the knowledge that God is with us, that God’s grace and truth are powerfully and redemptively at work among us. In our exhaustion, God comes in Jesus with grace and truth. When we are frightened and anxious, God comes in love and with courage and speaks to us the very same words God’s messenger spoke to Mary and to the shepherds: “Be not afraid.” When we do not believe we have what we need to face the challenges within us or the brokenness around us, God pours out the Holy Spirit just as on the day of Pentecost, always giving the church more than we need to do what is most needed. When our own sins and failures have disrupted our lives and seem to have cut off our futures, the Christ born of Mary offers forgiveness and a whole new life. In Jesus, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.
There is no doubt that these are exhausting, uncertain, challenging days for us in so many ways. But let’s remember, by faith, that Christmas first came to those who were also exhausted and afraid. In his living, teaching and dying, the Christ born in Bethlehem also knew struggle and exhaustion, so that the same carol that speaks of the weary world can also proclaim “he knows our need, to our weakness no stranger!”
This Christmas, wherever we are, no matter how worn down and worn out we are, let us hear the invitation of the angels and come through prayer, worship and remembrance to the manger. Let us see the baby, God with us, in human form. Imagine what it would be like to hold that baby and be held by a love that will not let us go. More important still, let us rise from the manger as people who know that God is with us not only to hold us in our exhaustion and heal us in our brokenness but even to hold and heal the world through us.
This Christmas, may the wonder of Mary, the joy and energy of the shepherds, and most of all the remarkable, relentless, resurrecting love of the Christ child, be with us and in us and in this world through us.
Rev. Dr. Paul Baxley is Executive Coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Learn more at http://www.CBF.net.