A baby cries in the night. The mother awakes and takes the baby in her arms. She rocks the little one and whispers over and over, “It’s all right.” While this would seem to be merely a commonplace event, it actually poses a question about the ultimate context of our lives. Is the mother telling the truth? For Christians, the answer has to do with another baby born long ago in a manger.
When I was in college or seminary, too many years back to remember which, I came across this vignette. It has stuck with me, because it raises the core religious question in such a simple, poignant way. We look about and see order and beauty…but also suffering and death. We know how much mothers love their children, but also that some children die. Indeed, in this world, everything dies, sometimes prematurely or painfully.
That’s not a world which, in and of itself, appears to be all right. We find it hard enough to accept a mother’s death, even if she lived a happy life and was able to hold her grandchildren. But how do we accept a child’s death or other unspeakable tragedy? As we know but routinely repress, these tragedies happen all the time and seem to be random, senseless. A friend once told me that if you were able to comprehend, for only a moment, all of the suffering in a single hospital, you’d fall apart.
Which brings us back to that baby in a manger. Angels were there, the story goes, and told shepherds that they need not be afraid, that this baby was bringing good news, great joy. When that baby became a man, he spoke of his Heavenly Father, who created the world and watches over it, feeling even the fall of a sparrow. He told us that nothing good is ever lost but will be renewed and eternally transfigured. Tears will be wiped from our eyes, suffering and death will disappear, the lion will lie down with the lamb.
For both believer and non-believer, the core religious question is the same, and it could be stated in the terms and stories of any religious tradition. Were the angels telling the truth to the shepherds? Was that baby in the manger telling the truth when he grew up? Is that mother telling the truth when she whispers those words of comfort to her baby? Is it all right, really all right, or isn’t it?
Christmas, no matter how it’s been secularized and sentimentalized, is essentially an answer to this question, an answer that has been heard through the centuries. It’s not an answer that makes sense in this world. No, it’s an answer that makes sense of the world. And when we hear it anew, we lift our voices, whether we believe or half-believe or can’t believe: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, goodwill toward men.”