Emmanuel in Dark Places of Unfairness
A romanticized nativity does not serve Christianity or modern people well. We present a saccharine Christmas story and then wonder why it seems so childish and irrelevant to our adult messy lives. Luther penned of Jesus, “no crying he makes.” Really? He was never hungry or wet or colicky?
U.S.A Today reports that this year, people are experiencing “more jingle, less Jesus.” About half of millennials disbelieve the central aspects of the Christmas story. One wonders what story they are rejecting?
The actual story of Jesus’ birth is closer to an R-rated movie involving a presumed birth out of wedlock to a teenage girl, the threat of an honor killing, a potentially cuckold fiancé, a 100-mile walk nine-months pregnant, rejection, cold, fear, and the birth of a publicly assumed bastard child. Yes, there were angelic choirs and a bright star, but these facts do not diminish the smells, cold, shame, and rejection felt by the main characters in this story. There may be no atheists in foxholes, but dark places of chronic unfairness can take their toll on faith.
Most of us in similar circumstances would utter loudly to all who would listen, “This sucks.” And in our hearts we would assume that God is mean, which would give rise to a realistic natural reaction, if only uttered in hushed tones under our breath, “God sucks.”
That Mary and Joseph did not respond to their circumstances in this manner is a testament to their awareness that God is with us even in the darkest moments of life. God is with us not in a sanitized Christmas children’s pageant, but with us in a very adult environment of mix emotions and public shame and uncertain choices. The nativity story is one of a fragile marriage, a scared teenager, a foreign land, and a dirty barn.
It is only when we can bring God into our own dark places do we have a sense of the main message of Christmas—Emanuel in the hood, prison, halfway house, drug den, and back seat of a police car.
This is the gift of Kenji Kuramitsu’s collects for Black Lives Matter Movement—and beyond. Here is a book of prayer for places and circumstances where we are inclined not to pray: after the shooting at the hands of the police, after a sexual assault, in a mental institution, in the midst of a white supremacy march, or during an ICE raid. It is especially here in the midst of the darkness, evil, uncertainty, and pain that we most discover the truth that God is with us. At the edge of suicide our only prayer may be, “Jesus, help me.” We often don’t have the words as the torrents of emotions block all coherent thought. This is why this little book of prayers has such existential power to remind us of truths masked by groaning too deep for words.
My son, Alex, teaches art at the Rikers Island Correctional Center. The darkness of the prison masks the darkness of the souls there whose identity has been shaped by their environment. Kenji’s book, A Booklet of Uncommon Prayer, is a powerful reminder that “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.”
O Christ Jesus,
bless all those who are imprisoned,
whose bodies are bound behind wire and metal
and held in cages meant for chattel.
Grant us the decarceration you have promised:
that the prisoners would be set free,
that more sustainable and rehabilitative justice
might be birthed here,
and that wise and brave lawmakers, agitators, and leaders
would help us in this task
so that human hope may be restored.
In the Name of Jesus,
who confronted his imprisoners without hatred or bitterness
and who, even while enduring the death penalty,
extended hope and forgiveness to a fellow prisoner.
This week I will be going to a homeless shelter to serve a Christmas dinner. The food will be great. But I will also be leaving copies of this booklet there so that when the dishes are done, the strangers have left, and the routine returns late that evening, they will still know that God is there and have the words to enter into his presence. There is no messiness in our lives where Jesus has not already been. He is eager to join us there again.