The true surprise of Christmas is that, like all of us, God was born to eventually die. Unexpectedly, by taking our nature, by taking our joys and our sorrows, God redeems us.
It was not until the very end of this past Sunday’s Pageant rehearsal that grief hit me in an unexpected and new way. All weekend I had been struggling to make sense of the violence that had inflicted the community of Newtown. As a parent of two small children, I was shocked and horrified by this inexplicable and unexpected violence and death. Like parents across the country, I felt vulnerable and broken: how could this happen? What’s to stop it from happening again? In my role as a priest, I spend a lot of time dealing with the dead and the dying, but not in my role as a parent.
As I herded the assembly of kindergarteners and 1st graders, each eagerly playing his or her role as a barnyard animal, into their proper place on stage, the weekend’s tragedy hit me a new way. The loss of life and loss of promise was enfleshed, embodied and incarnated by this motley and wild crew of assembled barnyard animals. Then it hit me: numerous Christmas pageants in Sandy Hook would be missing their barnyard animals. There might be one less cow lowing…one less ox or donkey bowing before the crèche…one less sheep cuddling the baby. Those unfilled gaps and missing holes found a place in my heart. The grief came upon me unexpectedly.
Later that afternoon God’s grace also came pouring in upon me unexpectedly—as I happened to discover a video on YouTube. The video, entitled “An Unexpected Christmas,” is part of an ongoing creative arts initiative created by St Paul’s Anglican Church in Auckland, New Zealand.
The video opens with the line: “Have you ever wondered what we might see if we pulled back the curtain of time to that very first Christmas?” We see God in heaven surrounded by the heavenly host. God is looking down to earth and feeling sad about the wrong things that humans are doing to each other and at the separation that creates between them and God. It is finally time to intervene…so God—against the advice of the angelic host—decides to do the unexpected thing and sends a weak, vulnerable baby to demonstrate God’s love. Jesus incarnates God’s loving presence in a broken and hurting world.
This video tells the story of Christmas—a story that all of us know by heart—but in this difficult time of loss and unexpected grief, we sometimes miss the unexpected grace at the heart of the story. We miss the true surprise of Christmas. And it is not about surprising our loved ones with fabulous gifts, it is not the surprising magic of Santa Claus, and it is not even about the surprising charity of the human heart. No, the unexpected gift that God gives us is the gift of God’s own self wrapped up in a humble package that we can truly accept. God did not incarnate Godself in some resplendent, radiant and glorious package—but chose the small, fragile figure of a baby.
The true surprise of Christmas is that, like all of us, God was born to eventually die. Unexpectedly, by taking our nature, by taking our joys and our sorrows, God redeems us. In becoming like us, God elevates our humanity—so that we might become like God.
Even though we continue to live in a world where humans inflict evil acts against one another—especially the most vulnerable and the weak—we know that God is with us. God has become like us in our frailty so that we might use our frailty to better glorify God with it. If you happen to attend a Christmas Pageant this year, don’t get caught up in the cuteness of the kids or the beauty of a decorated church. Instead look for the unexpected. Look for God in the vulnerability of a helpless child—laying in an unsanitary manger and surrounded by animal poop. Look for God in your own brokenness and vulnerability.
The Reverend Luke Fodor is the Assistant Rector of St. John’s Church in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, where he works with children, youth and young families. Having spent nearly 5 years working at Episcopal Relief & Development, Luke works to empower children and youth for God’s mission in this hurting world.
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