This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.
Novelist Sebastian Faulks tells the story of a man named Jack Firebrace, a coal miner from Edmonton, England, who during World War I found himself in France on the front lines of battle. He was too old to be a soldier, but miners like him had been recruited to dig tunnels underneath the trenches in order to bomb the Germans from below.
One day Jack received word from his wife Margaret that their young son John had taken ill. He sat that day on a fire step drinking tea, regaining strength after six hours underground, his thoughts turned toward home.
Eight-and-a-half years earlier, when his wife had given birth to a son, Jack’s life had changed. As the child grew, Jack noticed in him some quality he valued and which surprised him. The child was not worn down. In his innocence there was a kind of hope. Margaret laughed when Jack pointed this out to her. “He’s only two years old,” she said, “Of course he’s innocent.”
That was not what Jack had meant, but he could not put into words the effect that watching John had on him. He saw him as a creature who had come from another universe; but in Jack’s eyes the place from which the boy had come was not just a different but a better world. His innocence was not the same thing as ignorance; it was a powerful quality of goodness that was available to all people: it was perhaps what the prayer book called a means of grace, or a hope of glory.
It seemed to Jack that if an ordinary human being, his own son, no one particular, could have this purity of mind, then perhaps the isolated deeds of virtue at which people marveled in later life were not really isolated at all; perhaps they were the natural continuation of the innocent goodness that all brought into the world at their birth. If this was true, then his fellow-human beings were not the rough, flawed creatures that most of them supposed. Their failings were not innate, but were the result of where they had gone wrong or been coarsened by their experiences; in their hearts they remained perfectible.
This love Jack felt toward his son redeemed his view of human life and gave substance to his faith in God. Where his piety had been the reflex of a fearful man, it was transformed into something that expressed his belief in the goodness of humanity. (Faulkes, 1993)
I’ve never thought of Christmas as a test of faith in quite the same way as I have this year. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury acknowledged recently that it is a challenging task to sing songs of joy as we try to imagine what Christmas means for those whose children were taken in a season that celebrates a child born. It is a challenge not only in Connecticut but around the world, in places too many hold in our hearts.
And it has always been so.
Christmas comes each year, no matter what transpired in the months since last we sang the same songs and listened to the same stories and sent cards with the same message of hope for peace and goodwill. Surely we must ask ourselves, why?
In part, we celebrate Christmas because it’s what we do, and, as they say, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Even Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young German pastor writing from a prison cell in Nazi Germany, affirmed the importance of tradition:
It is not till times such as these that we realize what it means to possess a spiritual inheritance independent of changes of time and circumstance. The consciousness of being borne up by a spiritual tradition that goes back for centuries can give one a feeling of confidence in the face of all passing strains and stresses. (This from a man about to be executed). Anyone who is aware of such reserves of strength need not be ashamed of more tender feelings evoked by the memory of a rich and noble past, for in my opinion they belong to a better and nobler part of humankind.” (Bonhoeffer)
But it isn’t just our traditions that belong to a noble part of humankind. We belong to that nobility, too. We are not merely the rough and flawed creatures we know ourselves to be. What we celebrate tonight is the essential goodness of our humanity.
When God chose to reveal the fullness of divine love to humankind, God chose to live a human life. That life that began as all our lives began, in innocence and vulnerability. The child was born into a world ill-prepared to receive it, as was more true of our own births than we may realize. The child was born into circumstances he could not control, nor fully understand, as were all of us born into this world of pain and grandeur. The child was born to show us the face of God, the same face reflected in all those created in God’s image.
We sing songs of hope again so that we don’t forget what we hope for, and we tell our sacred stories again so that we don’t forget who we are and what we are here on this earth to do. To be a follower of Jesus means to persist in hope and strive to become that for which we hope.
If there is one message to be gleaned from all our efforts to celebrate Christmas, it is the audacious affirmation that in the face of all evidence to the contrary, we possess innate goodness. Each one us has imprinted on our soul the image of God, and we have the capacity to carry God’s hope and love to places where hope and love are most needed.
It’s often said that with the birth of each child comes the message that God has not yet given up on humankind. The birth of Christ, our birth, the birth of all those who came before and who will come after of us—all bring the message that God has not given up hope. We are God’s hope, God’s image, God’s light.
And so this Christmas, hold fast to what is good. Refuse to accept that the way things are now is how they must be. We don’t have to live in a world where children starve or fear the sound of gunshots. We need not go careening down the precipice of fiscal irresponsibility or global devastation. We are better than this, and we can do better. Dare to hope and believe that we can live from our essential goodness and bring about the change we seek. For we are a noble people, the ones to whom and in whom God is born.
Bonhoeffer, D. (1967). Letters and Papers from Prison, Revised Edition. New York: The MacMillon Company.
Faulkes, S. (1993). Birdsong. New York: Vintage Press.