There is a curse of unknown provenance that says, “May you live in interesting times.”
In November we celebrate Thanksgiving Day, counting our blessings and giving thanks for the bounty of the land. It’s a time for families to gather and renew the bonds between generations. It’s a holiday open to all people of faith and of none. Except for Native Americans, who observe the fourth Thursday in November as a National Day of Mourning. The arrival of European settlers and the story of hospitality at Plymouth didn’t result in peaceful coexistence but was another event in the long history of death, broken treaties and the systematic attempt to erase Native culture and religion.
Advent and Christmas come in December. It’s a time of hope and expectation. My stepmother-in-law once created a Christmas card featuring a photo of all the grandchildren over the caption “Christmas is for Children.” Yet this Christmas there will be hundreds of Israeli and Palestinian children already killed, and more in harm’s way. Armenian children, Sudanese children, Ukrainian children, children in our own communities and schools are caught in the violence and death that we grown-ups are unable to end.
We live in interesting times. Complex, fraught, deadly. Everything comes at us too fast and is too intense. At the same time, we go about doing all the unremarkable tasks of daily life. We go to work. Clean house and shovel the walk. We go to the grocery. We check emails. We pay bills. We keep on going. These seemingly quotidian things actually hold us together as we try to make sense of everything that is going on around us.
In her 1969 hit “Is That All There Is,” Peggy Lee presents a nihilistic view of life. Home, relationships, life—there’s nothing more to see. Move on. When she was a little girl, she watched her house burn down and reflected, “Is that all there is?” When she fell in love and that love was everything and the relationship ended, she reflected, “Is that all there is?” When she comes to the end of her life she reflects, “Is that all there is?”
Into this world that God so loves, into our rebellion that brings about unspeakable cruelty, into our casual unthinking actions that hurt others, God has chosen to be incarnate in Jesus.
These “interesting” times can push us into the same frame of mind. Juxtaposed with the relentless pressure to be merry, to sing “Joy to the World,” to proclaim and to hear proclaimed that the year of the Lord’s favor is at hand, we look at the world, at life and the death around us and might say, “What’s the point?”
Immanuel Kant, an 18th-century German philosopher, argued that the goal of humanity is to achieve perfect happiness and virtue. He believed that an afterlife must be assumed to exist in order for this to be possible, and that God must be presumed to exist to provide for this. In short, we will never get this done in our time or in our human struggles no matter how noble. But God, the Lord of infinite possibility, holds out a life and future of promise. We say no and put a dead stop to the limits of life in this world. God says yes and draws us beyond our imposed limits into God’s limitless realm of love and justice.
How has God made this known? How do we receive this? God does not shy away from our rebellion and the devastation that follows in its wake. God is not untouched by the murder of innocents throughout all the ages. Rachel weeping for her children. The massacre of the Innocents. The Shoa. Gun violence in Chicago and in communities and schools across the United States. Lord have mercy.
But here’s the thing—into this world that God so loves, into our rebellion that brings about unspeakable cruelty, into our casual unthinking actions that hurt others, God has chosen to be incarnate in Jesus. This is the incredible promise of Christmas and realized at Easter. This is not a god far off. This is God with us, a God who would die rather than lose a single one of us. A God who would go to hell and back to bring us back into God’s loving embrace.
This is our real and truest hope.