Every year we re-tell the story: a baby born in a manger, shepherds in the field. We sing songs. We light candles. We put figurines on the mantle. It is such a familiar story that we forget how strange it really is. How completely—at least on the surface of things—irrational. How illogical. The God of the universe, the God outside space and time as we know it, beginning the redemption of all creation in the most vulnerable and dependent of ways—as a baby. And a baby born not in the middle of the day, but in the middle of the night. God physically entered this world in the midst of darkness. I find that detail significant.
Six months after my mother died of cancer, I stopped by my parents’ house to drop off some groceries for my father and found him lying on his bed, unresponsive. He was breathing, just barely, but I could not rouse him. And then I found the suicide note. I called 911 and the paramedics came and an ambulance and the police to question me about the circumstances of his overdose. At the hospital, I sat in the waiting room with everyone else until someone came out and summoned me through the double doors separating patients from their anxious families. When I asked about my father, she wouldn’t answer. She just said the doctor would come talk to me shortly and put me in an office the size of a closet and shut the door.
In that tiny office, the sounds of the ER were muffled to the point that I could hear a clock on the desk ticking slowly and steadily. I was fairly certain the doctor was going to come tell me that my father was dead. Why else would they sequester me like this? And in that time of waiting, which seemed like an eternity, I both felt and literally was more acutely alone than I have ever been in my life. My mother was gone, dead of a rare and excruciating form of cancer, and now either my father was also dead or, at the very least, ill in a manner he might never recover from. I had called my siblings on the drive to the hospital and two were on their way, but they both lived on the east coast and wouldn’t be with me until late that night. Whatever was happening in the moment, I was facing alone. And yet, I wasn’t alone. As I sat listening to that clock ticking, I was acutely aware of Jesus waiting with me. That awareness was as vivid and intense as my feelings of aloneness. Which makes no logical sense. But truth isn’t always logical.
My awareness of God’s presence did not make me feel any better. I didn’t experience any cocoon of warmth or protection from the anguish and horror of those moments. But even in the midst of the awfulness, even though I felt so alone and so devastated, I knew with a certainty I could not even have begun to fabricate for myself that God was with me. I wasn’t praying. I was too traumatized to pray. I was also too angry. Not just angry, I was filled with a cold fury at God. Hadn’t we been through enough? How could this happen? I wanted no part of God. So I just sat, deadened, despairing, and fully aware of God sitting and waiting with me until the doctor finally opened the door and told me they had managed to stabilize my father for now and were moving him up to the ICU.
I’ve thought about my time in that little closet office on many occasions in the years since. For some Christians, their testimony of and certainty in Christ involves personal encounters with him that involve dramatic and deeply felt transformations, either internally or externally or both. And many, I think, are attracted to Christ in the hope that he will rescue them from pain and loss and fear. There are times when he does offer that. But on many occasions, Christ’s presence in our lives does not offer an escape from suffering, but a commitment from him to enter into the midst of that suffering with us. To walk us through the valley of the shadow of death. That has been my experience—not an absence of pain but the certainty that God will never be absent from my pain. That he will never forsake me even when I feel utterly alone. Even when I bitterly reject him.
We don’t need light during the day time. We only have need of it in the dark. And that is when Jesus came. That is when he still comes. That is the Christmas story. Mary, Joseph, the animals, the shepherds, and the illogical and necessary truth that hope can be born in the deepest part of the night.