Hope is a star that shines in the night

Leading us on till the morning is bright

When God is a child, there’s joy in our song

The last shall be first and the weak shall be strong.

And none shall be afraid.

“HOPE IS A STAR THAT SHINES IN THE NIGHT” BY BRIAN WREN – Book of Praise, Presbyterian Church in Canada, #119

My three year old son died on Thanksgiving Sunday in 2007. A few short weeks later, we encountered the Christmas season. A time of bustling merriment, hope and joy. I was not in the mood. It was so painful to sing the songs of Advent, including “Hope is a Star”, which we sang at my son’s funeral. It was painful to watch the children dressing as angels and shepherds, giggling and proud in their temporary new identities. There is a great deal of pressure at Christmastime to be joyful and merry, neither of which was possible for me. Worship was a time of silent torture, trying not to cry in public, churning with pain and unable to hear words of hope.

Photo by Dan Kiefer on Unsplash

What does joyful expectation look like when we are grieving? Can we find room within the nativity story for grief and trauma to find full expression?

Silent night, holy night. 
All is calm, all is bright. 
Round yon virgin mother and child
Holy infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace. 

From the songs we sing at Christmas, we might draw the conclusion that the biblical story of Jesus’ birth was entirely joyful and peaceful. In reality, the whole story is suffused with trauma.

The undesired pregnancy of a young woman who was not, in all likelihood, physically or emotionally ready to bear a child in such circumstances. The trauma of a journey in late pregnancy, with no place to go and no one to turn to. Childbirth and Christmas have something in common – we tend to downplay the amount of trauma present in both. However, childbirth was and is the most dangerous thing a person can do with their body. To give birth alone except for Joseph, in a barn, with no help or support. We downplay the degree of messiness and misery – blood and sweat and tears. Then come the visitors, terrified shepherds, and eventually magi who bring gifts to prepare a king for burial. Mary treasured these things in her heart and yet, there are shadows and dark overtones throughout.

Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
Bye bye, lully, lullay.
Thou little tiny child,
Bye bye, lully, lullay.

Enter King Herod, threatened and immensely dangerous. There is perhaps no scripture that evokes such pain as the story of the slaughter of the innocents. Matthew tells of an earthly king whose rule is endangered by the birth of a child who was born to be King of the Jews. Mad with rage and fear, Herod orders the slaughter of all the little boys. We can hardly bear to read this text and contemplate its implications. There would be massive, collective trauma that would cascade from generation to generation. The song lyrics above come from the Coventry Carol, a sixteenth century composition that is a lullaby for dead and dying children. Meanwhile, the holy family has fled, once again into a volatile and unknown situation. There is trauma everywhere in this story.

This trauma that is present in the nativity also, perhaps, makes space for our own trauma.

The themes of Christmas and Advent, at least as celebrated within the church, are not only themes of hope, love, peace and joy but also themes of grief, longing, fear and unfulfilled expectation. While our culture might encourage an almost forced cheerfulness, there is room in the church for more delicate responses to the season. As worship leaders, we should never forget that there is as much hopelessness as hope, as much restlessness as peacefulness, as much despair as joy, and as much grief as love. These things cannot be separated, because it is in the midst of the darkest night that the stars shine brightest. When interpreted through the lens of grief and trauma, Christmas becomes an occasion to reflect not only on what we hope for, but what we have lost.

Photo credit: Peter King

The shadow of crucifixion is never far away in the Christmas narratives. We are reminded that Jesus was born to die. This fresh new life would grow and learn, and eventually be killed because of his passion for God and for people. There is a lot of conversation about what Mary knew – after her encounter with Simeon and Anna in the temple, she knows that a sword will pierce her soul one day. I think she must have known that the future would be dramatic and dangerous.

Joy is a song that welcomes the dawn
Telling the world that the saviour is born. 
When God is a child, there’s joy in our song. 
The last shall be first and the weak shall be strong. 
And none shall be afraid. 

There is good news here. I can sing the songs again. It took years, a painful journey that could not be avoided. Today I sing with enthusiasm the songs of hope and longing. It is, after all, in the deepest sorrow that we have an opportunity to invent new songs. The death of Jesus looms, and yet so does his resurrection. Death is transformed. So in the stories of Christmas we see foreshadowed not only the torture and suffering, but the rising. Christmas is a space in between sorrow and joy. There is room for profound grief, profound longing for a more just and abundant communal life. We are permitted to sit with our grief as long as we need. If we can’t sing the songs, that is ok. Perhaps it is easier to sing when we see that the lyrics are loaded with grief. After all, we sing about hope because we are in an untenable situation. We sing about joy because we are longing for it. We sing about peace because there is no peace. We sing about love because we are afraid that we are not loved enough. Joy and pain intermingle in our celebration of Christmas. We are reminded that even in the darkest, most dreadful night, there is the hope of dawn. We are guided not by sun or moon but by a star, a pinprick of light that reminds us that even in the darkness, God shines.

Sarah Travis is an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, and holds a Doctor of Theology in Preaching from Knox College, University of Toronto. She serves as the minister of Norval Presbyterian Church, and teaches courses in the area of preaching and worship at Knox College, University of Toronto. Sarah is the author of ‘Decolonizing Preaching: The Pulpit as Postcolonial Space, Metamorphosis: Preaching after Christendom, and Unspeakable: Preaching and Trauma Informed Theology’ (published by Cascade Books).

As with all our guest posts, views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the CSBV.

The other side of Christmas…
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One thought on “The other side of Christmas…

  • 4th December 2022 at 11:48 pm

    “The trauma of a journey in late pregnancy, with no place to go and no one to turn to. Childbirth and Christmas have something in common – we tend to downplay the amount of trauma present in both. However, childbirth was and is the most dangerous thing a person can do with their body. To give birth alone except for Joseph, in a barn, with no help or support”.

    This comment is probably not entirely accurate. Sarah has I think accepted the standard ‘Nativity
    Play’ presentation of Joseph and Mary going to a strange place where they have to stay in the stable of an inn. But there is not an inn in the biblical account, and indeed the idea of them going to a place where they would have to stay in an inn doesn’t really make sense. In the biblical account there is a ‘ketaluma’, a ‘guest chamber’. And there is also the simple statement that to be registered everyone went ‘each to his own city’.

    Wherever it came from – and I suspect at the time of early translations to Latin – the rendering of ‘ketaluma’ as an ‘inn’ distorts the story precisely because it implies that Bethlehem was not Joseph’s ‘own city’. But think – we know of course that bureaucrats can be stupid, but how likely is it they would do something so obviously impractical as to send a man to register for tax in a place where he has only an ancestral connection but no current residence or property – a place where he has to stay in an inn? Try this idea instead….

    Joseph lives in Bethlehem as a member of a junior branch of King David’s family living on part of the ancestral lands. At the time of Jesus’ birth he is working up in the Galilee possibly on the city of Sepphoris, close to Nazareth, as a ‘tekton’, a jobbing builder; partly because this was an area offering a lot of work at the time, partly because of nearness to his fiancee Mary. However, in Galilee he isn’t a resident – he would be seen rather like say Polish migrant workers in the UK. When he needs to register for tax he will naturally go home to Bethlehem, literally ‘his own city’. He will pick a reasonably convenient time for the journey, bearing in mind the work he’s currently involved in, the way weather may affect the building season, and so on. Not a desperate journey in late pregnancy though of course maybe also not ideal timing because of the other factors. On arrival in Bethlehem they go to the family home where they stay for quite a while – certainly long enough after the birth for the presentation of Jesus in the Temple where they meet Simeon, and possibly for some time before the birth as well.

    Though there are other possibilities, one fairly standard type of house at that period (and similar buildings were to be found in the medieval north of England) would be a two storey house with the family sleeping other accommodation upstairs, and downstairs split between daytime living space, servant accommodation, and animal quarters including for Joseph’s four-legged long-eared builder’s ‘Transit van’ (the donkey!) For some reason at the time of Jesus’ birth the upstairs ‘guest chamber’ was not available (my still unfinished nativity play of this scenario blames a visit by fussy elderly Aunt Hepzibah! – though I also considered the possibility of a steward from an important building client

    ) and the actually relatively cosy indoor stable was pressed into use instead with the manger making an improvised crib. This probably made it easier to welcome the shepherds compared to the originally intended more private guestchamber….

    If this wasn’t a very short stay in an inn, the Magi probably didn’t turn up on the actual day of the birth but later, and while still traumatic the flight to Egypt would probably not be a desperate dash with a very recent newborn baby. And of course on return from Egypt they would as the regular account says go to Mary’s family area in Galilee.

    Incidentally the other occurrence of ‘ketaluma’ in the NT is the room of the last supper….


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