By David Gushee
I have had the extremely rare privilege in the last two weeks of holding a tiny human being named Jonah. He entered the world on Dec. 10, weighing not even eight pounds and stretching not as long as two feet. In other words, he is a perfectly ordinary weight and length to be a brand new human being in the world. What is not perfectly ordinary about him is that he is our first grandchild. (Can I show you just a few more pictures now?)
Jonah Love, or as we sometimes like to call him, Baby Love, came as our best Christmas gift after a punishing year. The Year of Our Lord 2014 saw the death of my father-in-law in March, my mentor Glen Stassen in April, and my mother in August. I believe we enjoyed a total of 45 days between January and September in which no loved one was dying. My family had not experienced a year like this in living memory.
It was also a punishing year nationally and globally. The news this year was redolent of death. Over at Yahoo News, 2014’s top 10 news stories by search volume included 1) the Ebola epidemic, 2) Robin Williams’ suicide, 5) two Malaysia Airlines disasters costing 537 lives, 6) Ferguson and its aftermath, 7) the Jodi Arias murder case, 8) the horrific barbarities of ISIS/ISIL, and 9) domestic violence, sparked by stories coming out of the NFL.
Professionally, my decision this fall to stand in solidarity with LGBT people brought responses ranging along a continuum of righteous indignation, quiet distancing, and (by far the most frequent) grateful embrace. I will always remember the amazing outpouring of correspondence from gay people telling me about the rejection and hurt they have suffered at the hands of Christians, often at the most intimate range (families, church friends, pastors). It has been disillusioning, heartbreaking, enraging.
One little story: learning that his son was gay, one Christian father went to the trouble to place a tombstone in his backyard to symbolize the “death” of that son.
My assumption that, in general, “Christianity,” “the Church,” and self-identified “Christian” people make an overall positive contribution to the world has been shaken by learning so much about this systemic toxin in our bloodstream.
A hard year. Grief, at many levels.
But then I got to hold a baby. For the first time in 22 years I got to cradle a newborn in my arms for extended periods of time. I got to see those sleepy eyes open up, look around a bit, and then go back to sleep. I got to hear those little gurgly noises and see that tiny mouth yawn and those tiny arms stretch. I got to smell that new baby hair smell and enjoy those impossibly cute little outfits. I got to think about a lifespan for Jonah that may stretch into the 22nd century. I got to weep in gratitude over the sheer wonder of it all.
Every year at Christmas the entire Christian world rehearses the story of salvation coming into the world via a baby in a manger. “For unto us a child is born,” and that tiny, defenseless, utterly dependent human being is also God-in-flesh. And somehow, by divine providence and careful parental effort, that hunted child, that refugee child, that dangerous child, got through his infancy and grew up to become Jesus of Nazareth, come to save the world. Which responded by nailing him to a cross. Of course.
This year the triumphant-sounding music of Christmas means little to me. The hymns that sound like royal coronation songs bounce right off me, echoes of overconfident Christendom.
It’s the minor-key songs that work for me, like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” It’s the songs that communicate how much we need saving — these work just fine.
The idea that this saving, and salving, comes through a baby — if we just take care of him, love him, and give him every opportunity to become who God intends him to be — makes an awful lot of sense to me right now. Gift from God, nurtured by human love, grown up to fulfill his destiny for the good of the world. The story of Jesus, yes, but with implications for every child. Theology and ethics.
For unto us a child is born.