It was Christmas Eve in the small New England church where I preached my first-ever Advent sermon, Dec. 24, 1971 — the first of four years I served as the congregation’s pastor while studying at Boston University. The First Community Church of Southborough, Mass., was packed that night with families, young and old.
If ever a young minister dreamed of a picturesque Christmas Eve, this was it. Snow fell outside in the crisp winter air. Advent candles flickered off stained glass windows in a white-frame meeting house more than 100 years old. If ever there was Christmas in its warmth and joy, security and serenity, this was it. Charles Dickens, eat your heart out.
The candlelight service progressed smoothly, and I rose to preach, clad in the pulpit robe they provided me, ready to bring a profound homily on love, joy and the Christ Child. But the sermon had barely begun when off to my left in the dimly lighted church I heard a shuffling, a deep sigh, and turned to watch as the visiting daughter of a most beloved church family experienced an unexpected epileptic seizure.
“If life’s harsh realities can find us wherever we are (and they do), then the gospel better find us there, too.”
Life overtook us that Christmas Eve, as worship morphed into an immediate response to human need. That experience, now one-year shy of half a century, remains imbedded in my memory. It is a moment that I think encapsulates the heart of Christ’s gospel. If life’s harsh realities can find us wherever we are (and they do), then the gospel better find us there, too.
So, each Christmas Eve I return to the words of Matthew’s Gospel, detailing when life’s harsh reality, borne by politics, overtook Jesus, Mary and Joseph along with a lot of other holy families. For no sooner had the “wise men” arrived, “opening their treasure chests” than an angel shows up in Joseph’s dreams with a first century dose of reality that begins in words we all understand: “Get up.”
“Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child to destroy him.”
“The Herods of this world are a timeless reality haunting every era.”
The Herods of this world are a timeless reality haunting every era. Matthew continues, “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.”
Perhaps the church’s calling at every Christmas is to describe the entire “nativity scene” in its deepest, darkest reality.
The Matthean text reaches back to the words of the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” In Genesis, Rachel, the 36-year-old spouse of Jacob, dies giving birth to Ben-oni (“my sorrow’s son”). Jacob calls him Benjamin, burying his mother on the Bethlehem road, a few miles south of Jerusalem. (Genesis 35:16-20).
In an essay on “A Mother’s Tears,” Simon Jacobson writes that Rachel “paid the price by dying in childbirth, and then dwelling in a lonely wayside grave in order to bear witness to the suffering of her children. As long as her children are wandering and oppressed, Rachel cannot find any final rest and remains with them ‘on the road.’ Rachel weeps for her children and refuses to be comforted.”
In my seven decades of living, no other time feels any closer to those ancient words and the stark realities they describe than the year of our Lord(?) 2020. Rachel weeps yet, for immigrant mothers and fathers separated from 666 of their own children, statistics documented by records from the same government that separated them, caged them and parceled them out across the country. Will they ever be reunited?
In 2020, Rachel’s inconsolable grief continues in deaths personified by African Americans like Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky.; George Floyd in Minneapolis; Ahmaud Arbery in Glynn County, Ga.; Tony McDade in Tallahassee, Fla.; and Dion Johnson in Phoenix. They represent terrible, multitudinous instances when race and law enforcement collide, a reality of enduring racial injustice.
And then there’s COVID. Who among us has not heard the plaintive laments of families, friends, doctors, nurses, orderlies, ambulance drivers, undertakers, ministers and others who encounter crowded ICUs, emergency rooms, prisons, nursing homes, many fostered by super-spreader events?
“Such harsh realities will not end with the blessing of vaccines.”
Such harsh realities will not end with the blessing of vaccines. As Yale professor Nicholas Christakis writes in his recent book, Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live: “Plagues reshape our familiar social order, require us to disperse and live apart, wreck economies, replace trust with fear and suspicion, invite some to blame others for their predicament, embolden liars, and cause grief.”
Get ready. New realities lie ahead for all of us.
With that in mind, and with a new year in the wings, I went back to the poets for wisdom, courage and hope. On the way with Rachel, perhaps we can:
Acknowledge the realities of the present moment.
Irish poet William Butler Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming,” published in The Dial in 1920, sounds frighteningly like our times a century later: It begins:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Commit ourselves to action for the sake of goodness and gospel.
In a 2019 narrative poem, “Rachel, Weeping,” Daniel J. Botha writes:
O say can you see … the home of the brave driving out hate with hate always fail only love is stronger than fear and stronger than hate and hiding heads in the sand while flying the flag of the rifle brigade the right to bear arms while Rachel weeps for her children, lifeless mannequins, strewn asunder, waiting on the brave, men and women willing to cry out “Enough!” and take action. Until such time, weep with me.
Work diligently to nurture community, even in online worship, Zoomed conversation, and yes, even Facebook.
The late Maya Angelou, poet, prophet, professor, called us to community in this 1975 poem, “Alone.”
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
Can make it out here alone.
Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone …
Now if you listen closely
I’ll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
Can make it out here alone.
Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone
Through all life’s realities, however they may track us down, there is Jesus, the Word made flesh who dwelt among us.
In the first stanza of his 1942 poem, “In the Clearing,” Robert Frost (of all people) sends us to that incarnation with these evocative words:
But God’s own descent
Into flesh was meant
As a demonstration
That the supreme merit
Lay in risking spirit
For the sake of Rachel and Jesus, let’s take the risk.
Bill Leonard is founding dean and the James and Marilyn Dunn professor of Baptist studies and church history emeritus at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, N.C. He is the author or editor of 25 books. A native Texan, he lives in Winston-Salem with his wife, Candyce, and their daughter, Stephanie.