by Howard Moody
Howard Moody, a contributing editor of Christianity and Crisis and senior minister at Judson Memorial Church in New York City, is known for his involvement in a host of struggles for progressive social and legal changes, especially women’s rights and health care. He was among the champions of women‘s legal right to abortion in the 960s and 1970s.
This article appeared in Christianity and Crisis December 23, 1985. Copyright by Christianity and Crisis, used by permission. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John R. Bushell.
Our dilemma is how to rejoice in the Nativity without sentimentalizing it; how to praise with the angels this new Beginning without forgetting the tragic ending.
No matter how much we may anticipate or enjoy the Christmas season, there has got to be a little Scrooge in all of us. There are times when the spirit of that bitter old cynic attempting to block out the overzealous conviviality and joviality of the season strikes a chord.
One of the reasons that people suffer hives, crying jags, drinking bouts, and plain orneriness in the Christmas season is the rules: Everyone has got to celebrate, renew family ties, exchange gifts, and above all "be happy." Most people really can’t manage it, and they suffer the psychic disease of the season -- depression. But the church and Christians haven’t handled the celebration much better. We are always tempted to gild the story over, covering its hard paradoxes with tinsel and glitter. We want to see only the joyful celebration, feel the warmth of the stable, and hear the angels’ glorious song. We don’t want to think about rejoicing at the birth of one who will suffer and die. Our need to remember the joy and forget the pain of this celebration may be due to the world we live in, a world threatened by all kinds of catastrophes -- some we know, and some we cannot name. Who has not wanted to put aside misgivings and uncertainties when a child is born into the world?
A few weeks ago I was in San Salvador, standing with some friends down by the railroad tracks where the poorest displaced people had built shelters with sticks and mud and a piece of corrugated tin, that familiar material symbolizing wretched poverty all over this world. Beside these hovels a Palestinian stable would look like a palace. In the midst of it all, suddenly surrounding us, were small children with upturned faces full of innocence and curiosity, looking for some sign of caring approval, a smile of recognition from these "gringo strangers," and shouting "toma mi foto" -- take my picture. It’s those children’s version of the slogan "I am somebody."
If only I could have basked in the sunlight of the shining faces of those children whose state of being almost has the power to wash one clean! But I couldn’t. For a shadow hangs over their young lives, making it more than likely that a number of them will die of malnutrition or bombs or be made orphans when their parents disappear.
Can we handle the paradox of it all? Birth, new life, coming into existence in the midst of physical squalor, economic impoverishment, and daily terror. Christmas is so full of innocence and wonder and glory that it makes the pulse pound and the heart beat fast. But if we really experience the Nativity we are faced with the heartache and suffering embedded deep in the nature of the event: No decent place for his birth, the fear of discovery by the wrong people, all the children who died because he was born, the anxious flight into a foreign country.
Christmas is a symbol of joy and hope and love in the world. But it is also a reminder of another truth: There is no deliverance unless someone suffers and sacrifices. Isn’t that the meaning of the anguished and painful cry out of Mary’s "insides" that brings the child into the world? And what about that other cry of forlorn abandonment on the lips of the baby who grew up and hung on a cross? Is this not a truth that sometimes escapes us -- that the rough-hewn cradle in the beginning and the "old rugged cross" at the end are made of the same wood? This symbolizes that at the heart of things is a hard and unacceptable reality that another is always suffering that we may live, someone always going to prison that we might be free.
The campesinos of San Salvador will celebrate Christmas with all the joy and festivity of their faith, but they would be the first to admit that because of the death of Archbishop Romero, many more of them are alive today. The challenge of a real celebration of Christmas is to make the connections between that wonderful story and "our story," whoever we are and wherever we live. We need to under-
stand the relationship between a desperate housing shortage for low income people in New York City and the story that there is "no room in the inn"; between the fearful flight of Mary and Joseph and people fleeing from war and repression in Central America; between the "slaughter of innocents" and millions of children dying of starvation in Africa; the incredible innocence of the babe in the crib and our cynical, worldly-wiseness that taught us we could be bought for the right amount of money, the right opportunity, or the right cause.
The pilgrimage to Christmas is not an easy one for people of intellect and learning, to find their way to a stable and bow before some Truth wrapped in humble clothes. But even if we get there we’d like there to be joy and adoration without thinking of the outcome. Our dilemma is how to rejoice in the Nativity without sentimentalizing it; how to praise with the angels this new Beginning without forgetting the tragic ending. No one speaks of this enigmatic celebration with more insight into the mystery than T. S. Eliot in his poem "Journey of the Magi":
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
If only we could have kept the baby in the creche. But he grew up and spoke the truth and got hounded and harassed, tried and convicted, and put to death. Somehow the end was there in the beginning. But we don’t want to see it. We would flee from the hard truth that just as death follows birth as surely as night day, so the Christian promise of rebirth is inseparable from, even dependent upon, the very death we fear.
So in spite of the beauty and joy of this celebration, we are troubled and afraid. But if we can embrace the whole story of Christmas, holding on to the anguish as well as the glory, we may yet experience a truly faithful celebration.