This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn-
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn-
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.
–The Risk of Birth, Christmas 1973, Madeleine L’ Engle
Madeleine L’ Engle’s work is so important to me, has been such a formative voice in my life, has filled my imagination and inspired my thought for so long (since at least age 9), that, as you may know if you have been following along here for a while, I named my daughter for her.
For me, the name Madeleine carries strength, creativity, grit, compassion and hope, the things I want most for my precious girl.
This poem of hers has been a go-to for me every Christmas season since my early twenties, a refuge and prayer both when the world feels too much, and when I’m so weary of caring about the heartache all around that I simply, “want to stop feeling,” as I said to one dear to me this last Sunday night.
Being alive can hurt so dreadfully.
I think this is exactly why God came to us as a baby. Vulnerable, capable of feeling pain and sorrow and heartbreak. I think God wanted us to know, “I get it. I know…I’ve created you and given you life and called you to live in relationship with each other and with the world around you and I’m so sorry–but some days, it’s all going to feel awful and you’re going to think I’ve made either a huge mistake or have a very sick sense of humor. Some days, you are all going to screw it up royally and I can’t stop it…but I promise you, I promise you I’ll be with you, even on those days, and the best thing I can offer you as a sign of that promise is by coming to you just as you are–a human being.”
I wonder sometimes if it was really God’s plan for Jesus’ life to end up as it did. Or if maybe God held out some hope, even until the very end, that we humans would behave better and straighten up and understand who Jesus really was and live our lives accordingly.
Of course Jesus was no ordinary human. I heard a wise woman I know say recently that we like to talk about Jesus’ humanness, but really, he wasn’t quite like us. She used the word “magical,” and while that isn’t necessarily a theological word, I knew what she was getting at–he was different. Extra. Like us but also not.
Anyway, my point is that there’s a risk involved, always, when you’re talking about human life. So much beauty and so much pain, both, possible.
I find myself craving the respite of beauty lately–whether its curled to watch Harry Potter for the millionth time, or laughing with my Curly Girl, or being held safe against the world for even just a moment, or hearing a piece of music so lovely it makes my soul ache, or exchanging air kisses with my almost-6-year-old niece over FaceTime, or seeing the moon rise full and glorious over my backyard…these things, they are small, but they are also everything and they keep me going.
In other places, for other men, women, and children, there is very little, if any, respite to be found. Every day it seems pain and anger erupt somewhere new, or the situations that have been on a slow burn finally boil over into chaos.
Along the southern border of our nation…. In the aisle-between-bitterly-divided-parties of what passes for “our” government these days…. In our families, struggling to survive job loss and divorce and a completely out-of-whack healthcare system…. Despite our fears of gun violence, human trafficking in our own backyards, and opioid addiction…. In our own hearts, as we struggle with how to celebrate Christmas in the midst of it all–wanting to fill our children’s stockings with their hearts’ desire, but also wanting to instill in them something of the mystery and power of Immanuel, God-come-to-be-with-us….
The great risk of having been born is the pain of living. Loss and betrayal and hate and death.
And, the great gift of being born is the joy of loving. Intimacy and connection and support and community.
The paradox of blessing and curse made plain, the reality that joy and pain rarely exist except side by side proven true.
And so my great prayer as the Christmas season begins is that grace will be made plain, even amid the dumpster fires of our lives and world.
That love will come pouring down, filling up the broken places of our lives and washing away enough wreckage that room will be made for God’s mercy to do its redemptive and healing work.
That we will take our cue from a Love willing to risk everything to help us see truth, and that we’ll risk loving, too, even when it seems the most lost of causes.
That we will find a way past the anger and hate and into life. No matter the risk. So that we might hear anew the promises that we are not alone. That we are loved.
And that God is with us. Among us. In us.