“Where does it hurt?” is the diagnostic question asked by mothers and fathers ever since the first child said “ouch” for the very first time. “Show me where it hurts. Let me kiss it and make it better.”
If we’re lucky, our childhood traumas heal pretty quickly. Scraped knees and bumps on the head. A loud cry brings adults running to restore safety and order and all is soon right in the world again.
Sooner or later we discover that some hurts can’t be kissed away. Parents sit on the edge of the bed as children tell tales of being bullied, or share the agony of a break-up, or divulge the sorts of secrets that haunt families for the rest of their lives. Or parents aren’t there at all and children end up raising themselves as best they can after caretakers check out physically or emotionally, developing defense mechanisms and coping strategies for handling the pain of life on their own.
Where does it hurt?
The list grows faster than we can recite the harms. The phantom pains of the people we’ve lost as real as any limb. The illnesses that seem to chase after us, as friends and family fall prey to diseases with which we’ve become far too familiar. Our heads hurt, our bodies ache, and our hearts — oh God, our hearts — either numb or broken wide open by the news that floods our televisions, our inboxes, our newsfeed.
Where does it hurt?
In San Bernadino. In Colorado Springs. In Chicago. In Paris. In Beirut. In Syria. And once again in Israel, where this holiday season has been marred by the violence that naturally follows from occupation.
Imagine the holy family huddled in the night, far from home, in some stranger’s shed. Imagine Mary’s birthing cries as she labored in the dark. Imagine Joseph’s terror as he bluffed a sense of confidence he surely did not feel. No parent sitting at the edge of the bed. No bed. Just pain in the middle of the night, far from home, in a land under occupation, where daily violence was a fact of life.
Then the unexpected thing happened. Then God interrupted the constellation of hurts passing as reality with a divine kiss, a light in the darkness. Do you know what it was? How God did it? It wasn’t the baby Jesus — the world was full of newborn infants and terrified parents.
It was the shepherds. The angels did not appear on that dark, lonely night to the holy family. They came to the shepherds, bringing light from the heavens, and they announced that the future we’ve all been waiting for has actually already begun. They sang a song of the savior’s birth, a song that promised peace on earth for all God’s children.
The shepherds heard this good news and they believed it. They heard the word of peace, and they imagined an end to lives of poverty, working alone late into the night. They heard the word of peace, and they imagined an end to occupation, the foreign-born solider finally laying down his sword and acting like a neighbor. They heard the word of peace, and they imagined a government attentive to the needs of the hungry, and the homeless, and the foreigners, and the forlorn. They heard the word of peace, and they imagined a new life for themselves and their families, and their neighbors and their clans.
The miracle that took place that first Christmas night is that God sent messengers to people filled with hurts, people with no reason to expect anything to change, people like you and me, and those people heard the message and believed it. They believed it because they needed to believe it, because the weight of hopelessness and cynicism had become too heavy to bear. They believed it, because to believe that the future would be just more of the past was a kind of prison, and they longed to be free. They could have been hallucinating out there in the fields, or maybe they fell asleep while they were tending their sheep and dreamed the whole thing — but this dream was infinitely better than their waking reality.
I’m sure some of those shepherds had hoped that God would arrive like a parent perched on the edge of their beds, ready to tuck them in with a good story and the charge to dream sweet dreams. Maybe that’s what you hope for tonight as well, a well-worn tale of shepherds and angels and infants in the hay before you head off to sleep. But I just can’t, we can’t, because it hurts all over. In our heads and in our bones and in our hearts. Because the angels didn’t send the shepherds off to sleep, but to go and see that family holed up in the back of a barn.
So they went. As the angels receded into the twinkling stars of the night sky, the shepherds and shepherdesses, lit their torches and left their fields and made their way to Bethlehem.
What do you suppose it was like for Mary and Joseph, tired and scared as they were, to see those points of light coming toward them from the horizon — like stars that had left the sky? What impossible thing would they be asked to endure next? Who were these men and women holding fire in their hands? Were they about to be robbed? Beaten? Abused? Ridiculed? Deported?
Imagine their relief as the shepherds encircled them with light, shared their food and their songs, told the story of the angel host. Mary’s child was less than a night old, and already the world was feeling like a new place!
After a long season of waiting for God to come and save us, the surprising miracle of Christmas is that God doesn’t come like a parent, flipping on the lights and chasing away the monsters under our beds. Instead God comes as an exhausted young mother, a scared father, a fragile child crying in the dark of night.
God is hidden in plain sight, on the streets of Chicago and Jerusalem, suffering with humanity — crying that it hurts all over. We, like the shepherds, have stopped working, have allowed the rhythms of ordinary time to be interrupted, have lit our torches and brought our gifts. All of us together, caring for the fearful and the fragile, creating a circle of light in the darkness. That’s the miracle.