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Christmas and suffering
Today is St Stephen's Day, when traditionally the Church has remembered the first Christian martyr. The day after tomorrow is the day for remembering the Holy Innocents, the children killed by Herod in his attempt to exterminate Jesus, about which we heard in our gospel reading. By placing these festivals immediately after Christmas the Church calls us to remember the world of suffering into which Jesus was born, and which is still all around us. Our joyful celebration of Christmas, which is right & proper, must not forget the needs of those who suffer, and should indeed overflow in concerned action to help them.
Of course the birth of Jesus itself was surrounded by a measure of pain and hardship as Mary made the long journey to Bethlehem, which must have been frightening for a very young woman in the advanced stages of pregnancy. They arrived there only to find "no room at the inn", so Mary had to give birth in a stable amongst the animals. Thus Jesus was identified with the homeless and poorest. It was lowly, despised shepherds who first came to visit him, and ever since the gospel has drawn more of the downtrodden than of the wealthy and influential, whom it challenges very strongly, warning that wealth is a hindrance to entry to the kingdom of God. And, of course, the sequel to the wise men's visit was, as we heard, the flight as refugees into Egypt, in which Jesus shared the plight of millions today. Surely we cannot mistake God's choosing to have his Son share the fate of the suffering.
St Stephen, whose festal day is today, followed in the footsteps of Jesus, giving his life for the truth, witnessing that Jesus challenges the established order, often turning our human values upside down. He was stoned to death because he preached and showed that Jesus is the only way to God. The children slaughtered by Herod died because Jesus' coming challenged that earthly king's position. And, of course, Jesus himself was killed for similar reasons, from the human standpoint - the Jewish leadership had felt as threatened by Jesus as the next generation did by Stephen, and the Roman governor felt he must make get rid of a potential rival to his imperial master's position.
So what does the message of Jesus Christ, as expressed in the Christmas story, say to our world of violence and suffering? Let us not mistake the fact that Jesus' story condemns violence and denounces all who inflict suffering on others. But if that was all it does, it would offer no more than a simply decent human perspective offers. However it offers much more. Here are words from a document produced by the 2nd Vatican Council. "By suffering for us Jesus not only provided us with an example for our imitation. He blazed a trail and if we follow it, life and death are made holy and take on a new meaning." (2nd Vatican Council - 'The Church Today' Castle p245)
The Christian gospel offer us the hope, or rather the assurance, that God takes and transforms suffering. Jesus suffered more than we can imagine, and offered his life to God in order that we might be forgiven. And remember that "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself" (2 Corinthians 5v19), so this is God dying for us. His suffering & death restores our relationship with God. Furthermore his death and suffering are vindicated and transformed by his resurrection into glory and victory.
St Paul, who also suffered greatly for the gospel, and ultimately was martyred in his turn, felt able to assert, "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us." (Romans 8:18) Even the great Old Testament texts on suffering, Job & Lamentations, are shot through, here and there, with hope and a belief that God can make something good out of suffering. "For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another." (Job 19:25f) Or again "The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall! My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness." (Lamentations 3:19-23)
We can sometimes experience some sense of this even now. Listen to these moving words found on a scrap of paper on the body of a dead child at Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. "O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted on us, remember the fruits we have borne, thanks to this suffering - our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this, and when they come to judgement, let all the fruits which we have borne be their forgiveness." (Castle 2 p349)
The issue of suffering, and why a loving, almighty God permits it to continue, will always be the greatest challenge to Christian faith. Part of the response to it which Christmas offers is summed up in this little story. A little girl came home from a neighbour's house where her little friend had just died. "Why did you go?" questioned her father. "To comfort her mother," replied the child. "What could you do to comfort her?" The father continued. "I climbed into her lap and cried with her," answered the child. (Anon. Castle p322) God has come amongst us in Christ to share our pain. Christmas should remind us of that as much as Good Friday. But Easter (and since this is Sunday it is also a celebration of Jesus' resurrection) also shows us God transforming suffering into new life, and using it for good.
It is with the hope of Easter and the Christmas picture of God sharing our human suffering, that we are now sent by our Lord & God into his world to work for justice and an end to suffering, for the final vision & assurance of the bible is that God will at the end of time establish his kingdom of justice & peace in which suffering will be ended for ever. "And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.'" (Revelation 21:3)
May we be comforted by the knowledge that God shares our pain. May God give us faith that he will turn even suffering and death to good. And may we have a firm hope of the transforming glory of heaven, which will inspire us to give our best energy to work for an end to suffering through the establishment of justice in our world.