O Come O Come Emanuel: More than a Christmas Carol in Times of Trouble

From IFLC President Robert Bruttell

In the Christian tradition the gospel writer, Matthew, asserts for us each December that the ancient prophets had foretold the Incarnation of the Lord and that he shall be Emanuel. ‘God with us.’

How can you tell in these times of so much trouble that God is with us? Was that then and this is now?

Last week, I was asked, for what feels like the thousandth time, why Muslims don’t condemn terrorism. Really? I hear condemnations by Muslims literally every week, sometimes more often. Why then are Muslims being willfully ignored? For many the condemnations cannot be heard because they don’t fit the cherished narrative of the hearer. For the majority of us, our sadly, but all too dearly cherished societal barriers, put us out of earshot. We cannot hear what we are not present to hear.

This is an obviously perilous separation yet we choose to be separate and oblivious. I should add that I do not humor myself here. In many ways, I am no different. How could I be? Even as I strive to lessen my disconnection and isolation, I cannot magically exempt myself from our community’s default condition.

The Gospel writer we Christians call Luke says that the angel of God made a momentous announcement to some shepherds at night while they were out in their fields tending to sheep. That is to say that the messenger of God chose some itinerant, homeless laborers living outside with their animals to receive an amazing, even miraculous proclamation:  “the good news of great joy” that a Messiah had been born in a barn and that as a result they could expect “Peace on Earth and goodwill among the people of God.”

Goodwill? Where?

My heart “trembles, trembles” this Christmas season – a feeling more appropriate for Good Friday and the Crucifixion than the news and glad tidings of great joy, that Emanuel is born as a baby in Bethlehem. My mind is on ISIS; on the decimation of Christian Churches and other places of worship in the Middle East; on the realization that all of our Internet communication can be malevolently shut down; on the fact that the dominant culture, the people we call “white” – the people who on average have 20 times the wealth of those marginalized others – these white folks really can’t, or worse, don’t wish to understand why “broken windows policing” becomes harassment, becomes Ferguson, becomes the murder of police officers. I am reflecting on the itinerant homeless, laborers in the fields and doorways where they lay, keeping whatever they can fit wadded up inside those cardboard boxes along Third Street, along Cass, just a snowball’s throw from the condos and apartments that even the average hipster can no longer afford. The racialized structures of our society straightjacket us into separation and segregation. It is painfully obvious that people do not truly know one another. We are too easily satisfied by our not knowing and often smug in our absurd assertions that we can explain and understand those others. Yet living in our isolated enclaves, how could we?

Not living together has consequences. Itinerant laborers cannot breath and police officers are murdered. This situation is costing us dearly and will cost us even more in the future.

At this Christmas time I am reflecting deeply on how oblivious we remain to the consequences of not living together. Visiting the earth from on high, the angel of God must have known what in our time we have seen from space. We’re all on one rather small blue globe. We’re all in this together. That was their message, their glad tidings of great joy.

It occurs to me that Christmas is about a child of God, conceived by an unwed mother who was then forced to swaddle her child in a barn. Soon thereafter she and her family had to flee for their lives to a foreign land while hotly pursued by a vengeful ruler. On the other hand, I should be rejoicing that Emanuel is born to us, that we are not alone; that God is with us.

How do I find balance, find faith really, as we face these unsettling challenges? I know I am not the only one feeling this way during these holy days of Christmas and Epiphany.

My hope is that our efforts together are the path forward. Somehow people of faith will meet those challenges. I am blessed that there are so many others whose faith may well be deeper than mine from whom I can learn and with whom I can join hands to meet these challenges. During this Christmas season I am asking not only what do I do and where do I go as a Christian, but what do we do and where do we all go from here?

Like other non-profit organizations we of course sent out a year-end appeal for financial support last week. There is no denying that cash is critical, but in the end, money does not by itself build connections between individuals and communities. People working together to build community are the far more precious resource. I invite all people of faith to join me in rejoicing that God is with us during the Holiday Season.  As we wish each other Season’s Greetings we should ask what does it mean that God is with us in these unsettled times? The sages of my tradition say that God is present in many ways, not least of these is through each other. And so, I am convinced, we can, among many things, help to make God present by volunteering to facilitate more dialogue and understanding. Let’s tell our office mates, family and friends that every Muslim we know has condemned violence and terrorism. Let them know that segregation and isolation in their many forms are toxic and do violence to, as well as plant the seeds for violence within our communities in uncountable ways. Let’s volunteer to embody our faith that pluralism is one of the miraculous ways that God is with us. Let’s volunteer to teach people to read and help others to acquire the skills that can end itinerant homelessness. In our way, the IFLC can become a model for how God is present in the world. That would be a good start and begin to bring joy to the world, wouldn’t it?

That is my heartfelt Christmas wish for all of us in these challenging times.