Come behold the wondrous mystery
In the dawning of the King
He the theme of heaven’s praises
Robed in frail humanity
In our longing, in our darkness
Now the light of life has come
Look to Christ, who condescended
Took on flesh to ransom us.
– Come Behold The Wondrous Mystery, Matt Papa
“I’m the star holder!”, she’d announced earlier in the week. Now our girl stood on stage with her class, center-back row. She recited the gospel account of the wise men with the rest of her class as she held a golden star at her side, waiting until the time for it to rise in the east.
A few years ago, I stumbled upon the word that describes what moves me most about Christmas. Eucatastrophe. Coined by Tolkien, he defined it as “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears.” This “good catastrophe” is, as Tolkien describes,
…A sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief. (J.R.R. Tolkien, On Faerie Stories)
These days, I feel the shadow of death. This morning, I read and journaled, and thought about how a dear one was in the very chair I sat in a little over a year ago. Cancer has taken her body since, and I grieved that I hadn’t had more time to know and love her. I have felt the shadow lately as sin deepens and widens fissures in relationships and ministry. I feel it in how scary it is to live in a post-Genesis 3 world, as I shrink back from real and imaginary dangers that threaten what I love most. I think of Tolkien’s stories, and how it is in the absence of all hope of that rescue comes. I’ve given up hope on some fronts, though I know I haven’t truly, not completely. Perhaps you could say I am waiting for rescue.
Advent gives me permission to think intentionally about the waiting that was the context of the incarnation. I imagine the force of history barreling on and on while the people of God carry the weight of ancient prophecies yet unfulfilled. I think of intertestamental times and what it would’ve been like to be on the other side of the virgin birth, to reckon with God’s silence of hundreds of years. I think of humanity’s sure and final defeat if not for the baby born of Mary.
This is what captures my heart at Christmas– that the story of Christ’s birth, like the whole of the Christian claim, is not one of denial. Our faith is one that is meant to be tested in the face of real life in the real world. The “thrill of hope” we feel of the incarnation comes in the context of deep darkness. In the birth story: Mary, the mother of God, will have a sword pierce her soul. Her baby is born into a life of lowliness and suffering, to be murdered as a criminal at the hands of sinners. A maniacal ruler orders a massacre in his raging jealousy at the news of a newborn Jewish King. In the story of humanity: rebellion against God, unbelief and helplessness, doom and despair.
Into this darkness, Christ was born. That God himself would come and dwell with us, and become one of us to take on the darkness for us, no one could have hoped for in their wildest dreams. But he did, to those who had no hope, he came. He came unexpectedly but decidedly, and the darkness has not overcome him. And so, as Tolkien wrote, “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of man’s history.” While death’s shadows loomed, the Word became flesh and entered as light.
References to light are woven throughout Christ’s birth narrative. He was to be the “sunrise visiting from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death”, prophesies Zechariah (echoing Isaiah.) John describes Christ as the one in whom “the life was the light of men”. The glory of God shines on shepherds as they watch their flocks by night. And a star rises in the east because a virgin has borne a son.
Just as the rising sun cannot be held back by the night, with the turning of the incarnation, came our sure and strong rescue. All those years he seemed silent, God did not forget. Though it was a long time coming, he fulfilled his word. And because he came, suffering in this life does not the final word. Sin ravages but will not have the victory. Death’s days are numbered and we have hope beyond the shadow. We look toward our dwelling with him in the land where there is no night.
The hopes and fears of all the years, met in the birth of our Christ. Here is the dawn of the eternal day and of joy, joy beyond the walls of the earth.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.