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22 December 2012

Christmas, comfort and compassion

Christmas, comfort and compassion

The shooting of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut, last Friday has sent waves of disbelief and horror across the world. The innocent loss of those barely out of kindergarten with everything to live for is incomprehensible and devastating.

How can our God of love have let this happen?

I don’t know. That’s my honest answer. I don’t even feel entirely comfortable trying to come up with a response and I’m certainly not equipped to know where to start. Maybe I’m avoiding uncomfortable truths or maybe it’s not my role to theorise about suffering during times like this.

In his speech at the multi-faith service following the tragedy, a visibly choked up President Obama said to an audience of stunned faces and broken hearts: “Newtown, you are not alone.” He spoke of grieving alongside those who have lost.

This is a sentiment we often hear at times like this, but it is no less powerful.

The incarnation is the ultimate symbol of a God who doesn’t just tell us we are not alone or float around us in an ethereal, intangible way. This is the God who comes to not just be with us, but become one of us.

Emmanuel’s birth is one of extreme poverty. He is first put to sleep in the trough the cattle eat from. It’s almost offensively basic; smelly, dirty, awkward. Like the outcast refugee, there was nowhere for this travelling family. This is God in the grit, his birth a prophetic symbol of what his life would be - real, unexpected, subversive. Yet still steeped in glory as in the angels’ song filling the sky and crowned with the significance of his kinship, represented in the gifts from the wise men.

Even a quick flick though the gospels shows Jesus as a man who lived life to the full, experiencing every possible emotion. This was the man who got the party started at weddings, supplied the extra snacks at an under-catered-for picnic, cried his eyes out at the graveside of a friend, got down on his hands and knees in the dust to get some self-righteous men off the back of a hurting woman and hung out with the kind of guys you wouldn’t want to bump into down a dark alley late at night.

In Matthew 25, Jesus provokes this even further. Not only is he God-with-us, but here we see him embodied in the most unlikely way. Where would we find Jesus this Christmas?

He is far away from his mother-land, seeking refuge and afraid of being sent back.

He’s the child sat on a bunk bed in a dormitory waiting for somewhere he can call home.

He’s in hospital hoping for a friendly visit.

He’s the prisoner separated from his family and locked up for 23 hours a day.

He’s queuing up for a hot breakfast after another cold night on the pavement.

He’s in the classroom when the shots start to fire.

“Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” We are to be those who feed the hungry, visit the sick, house the homeless and befriend prisoners. God has moved into our neighbourhood and we too are called to be present in the dark, unwanted places, standing with the outcast, becoming ‘the poor’.

As Jesus mourned with those who mourn, so we are asked to stand alongside Newtown and others in their grief. So while we sing out the great glad tidings of Christmas, praying that God would come and abide with us, would we also be a dwelling people, a people of comfort and peace.

by Katherine Maxwell-Cook