Then what was said through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: “A voice was heard in Ramah weeping and much lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children, and she was not willing to be consoled, because they were no more.”
If we say, “We are without sin” we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing. If we say, “We have not sinned,” we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
1 John 1: 8-10
Christmas is a time where “the better angels of our nature” come to the fore. We gather with those whom we love and offer them gifts as a way of celebrating the gift that they are to us. It is also a time of great sentiment, where memory and nostalgia focus for us the the joy and sweetness of times past.
The Christmas story, along with the manger scenes and Christmas carols that express it, evokes in us a sense of the tenderness of God and recognition of the human fidelity of Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, the Shepherds and others that welcome the Christ child into our human world. Today, however, the “spirit of the season” is abruptly and painfully interrupted. The world into which Jesus is born is not only a world of singing angels and humble and faithful shepherds. It is also a world of power, deceit, and brutality. At the very moment of God’s self-emptying in service of love for the human race, Herod’s self-inflation is wreaking misery and death on the children and families of his very own people.
The Servant of God Dorothy Day once said: “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” Today reminds us not to dismiss the Mystery of the Incarnation with mere sentiment and good feeling. The world into which Jesus was born in the flesh was, as our world, a place, in the words of Tennyson, “red in tooth and claw.” No less than the animal world, we as sinful human beings wreak havoc on each other for the sake of self-preservation and personal comfort and advantage. In the words of the First Letter of John, if we deny our sinfulness we “deceive ourselves.” Yet, more than deceive ourselves, we inflict pain and violence on each other as we “claw” our way to power and security.
The image the gospel leaves with us today is that of the weeping and lamentation of the mothers of the children whom Herod has slaughtered. The light of Jesus’ coming is hidden for them as they grieve and suffer the loss of their beloved sons. The coming of God to dwell with us is accompanied not only by the songs of angels but also by the unconsolable mourning of mothers.That suffering and mourning which we continue to inflict on each other throughout all time belies the myth of human progress.
We are no less in need of being saved than our forebears of millennia ago. As Herod, we continue to believe that the security of our exalted position lies in our exercise of control and power, of “shock and awe”, over the lives of others. Each of us sinners, left to our own devices, will inflict pain and suffering on others to the degree that we continue to perpetuate the self-deceit that “we are without sin”. This is why we must mourn in order to be comforted. The “tidings of comfort and joy” that Jesus’ coming brings to us can only be known when our mourning for our sinfulness creates a space for the Lord’s coming to birth in us. It is discouraging for us to realize that for all our efforts, our sin remains. We cannot overcome it, but, through mourning and repentance, we can be delivered from it.
It has been over two thousand years since the birth of Jesus, and yet we still continue to kill our children, and mothers around the world remain inconsolable. Even as we try to do good and to bring peace, it seems that fear and violence but increase. Even out of the best of motives, it seems as if there are inevitable seeds of power and destruction embedded in our actions. If the word and work of God is to take root in us and be expressed through us, we must first and always remember our own sinfulness. We are not the light, but have life which can give witness to the light. Today reminds us that the love and power of God in our world will be manifest in us to the degree that we allow it to transform the deceitfulness of our own sin, fear, and self-righteousness. If we can decrease enough, we can be made instruments of God’s peace.
Oh, could we but embrace you:
we: shore, and you the sea,
or dwell amidst your blossoms:
we: birds, and you the tree.
But we are prints on water
and traces in the sand;
Like snowflakes or stray feathers
we are in no one’s hand.
from our home and root —
Oh, if your breath would touch us,
we’d love to be your flute. . .
Annemarie Schimmel, “Oh, Could We but Embrace You,” Nightingales Under the Snow, p. 18