Opinion | Having a Hard Christmas? Jesus Did Too

The analogy falls short. Christians believe that, unlike my father, Jesus was not simply a human messenger visiting us in our suffering. He was God-made flesh, “infinity dwindled to infancy,” as the 19th-century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote. The Christmas story tells us that therefore Emmanuel — which means “God with us” in Hebrew — is in fact with us in the whole of our actual lives, in our celebration and merrymaking, in our mundane days, and in sickness, sorrows, doubts, failures and disappointments.

Christians believe that because God himself entered humanity, humanity is being transformed even as we speak. Because God took on a human body, all human bodies are holy and worthy of respect. Because God worked, sweating under our sun with difficulty and toil, all human labor can be hallowed. Because God had a human family and friends, our relationships too are eternal and sacred. If God became a human who spent most of his life in quotidian ways, then all of our lives, in all of their granularity, are transformed into the site of God’s surprising presence.

Yet what astounds me most about the Christmas story is not merely the notion that God became a baby or that God got calluses and cavities, had fingernails and friends, and enjoyed good naps and good parties. Christians proclaim today that God actually took on or assumed our sickness, loneliness and misery. God knows the depths of human pain, not in theory but because he has felt it himself. From his earliest moments, Jesus would have been considered a nobody, a loser, another overlooked child born into poverty, an ethnic minority in a vast, oppressive and seemingly all-powerful empire. We have tamed the Christmas story with over-familiarity and sentimentality — little lambs and shepherds, tinsel and stockings — so we fail to notice the depth of pain, chaos and danger into which Jesus was born.

God identifies himself most with the hungry and the vulnerable, with those in chronic pain, with victims of violence, with the outcasts and the despised. In “The Message,” a poetic paraphrase of the scriptures, the pastor and theologian Eugene Peterson translates John 1 by saying, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” When Jesus, the Word, “moved into the neighborhood,” it was not into a posh home in a cozy Christmas movie but instead into a place of hardship and sorrow.

The hope of Christmas is that God did not — and therefore will not — leave us alone. In the midst of our doubts and suffering comes a baby. This child, Christians claim, is God’s embodied response to all of our human aching. In his book “Unapologetic,” Francis Spufford writes that Christians “don’t have an argument that solves the problem of the cruel world, but we have a story.” This story is one of God moving into the neighborhood.

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