“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8:18-21)
Four years ago this December, I was in India. As thoughts of Christmas brewed, thoughts of God becoming man, I witnessed one of the most miserable scenes of my life. On the surface it seemed the antithesis of Christmas cheer, a dark cloud blocking the warmth and light of the Infinite’s incarnation. After all, what does suffering have to do with Christmas? Christmas carols ring with “joy to the world,” “merry gentlemen” and angels rejoicing. We save sorrow for Good Friday; Christmas is for celebrating.
But in my mind, the event mingled with Advent. And it continues to each year, defining Christmas’ shadows and adding depth to my perspective of Christ’s birth.
I had been staying in Kolkata near Mother Teresa House, so I took the opportunity to visit the nondescript building on a busy street. In the hive of activity in its courtyard, a small team prepared the stream of visitors to volunteer in the Missionaries of Charity’s operations. I chose the women’s home. It’s less popular than the children’s home or the home for the dying; only two of us left that morning for its quiet grounds.
From the current state of the women, it’s impossible to guess anything about the homes they came from besides the fact that they aren’t welcome there now. In this refuge, the plain, functional spaces and the blank days punctuated by meal times and sleep offer a drab mercy.
I had worked with people who were marginalised, but my heart was not prepared to meet these women. Those with mental disabilities live on the ground floor. Their wing of the building borders a courtyard, and they are kept inside that wing by a makeshift wooden barrier that bolts from the outside. Most remained seated in the open corridor as we entered, gazing blankly ahead. But one of the few who noticed us immediately rushed towards me. Her face was scarred, possibly burned with acid or fire, probably intentionally. The right side had been so badly damaged that only the thinnest layer of skin covered her skull – no lips, no flesh over her cheek, no eyelashes or eyebrows or hair. She clung to me with thin arms, her raw face pressed into my shoulder and noises I couldn’t begin to interpret coming from her throat.
A wave of emotions hit me, but repulsion trumped them all. I didn’t want to know that such suffering existed, let alone embrace it. I stepped back and held her arms, restraining both her enthusiasm and my fear. Over the next couple of hours, as the other volunteer and I combed nits from shaved heads and massaged lotion into weak limbs – scarred and shriveled, even amputated stumps – I tried to make sense of their physical state and their mental isolation.
As I left that evening and the countdown to Christmas entered its final week, the reality of what Jesus signed up for gained a new dimension – his refusal to consider equality with God “something to be grasped,” his fellowship in our sufferings. He entered space and time in a body that would bear scars and with a mind that would be overcome with sorrow. My brief experience of those women’s tragic existence framed Christ’s incarnation. The smells. The futility. The blank faces – one-way mirrors that concealed ruined childhoods, violence, abandonment.
Jesus didn’t visit as I had, offering some diversion for a few hours before retreating to safety. I couldn’t wait to escape the destitution; he moved in. He “bore our wounds, and carried our sorrows.” He suffered what the amputee and burn victim and discarded spouse suffered, and he did it so that they – so that we – could be restored. Our word “love” doesn’t begin to fathom that.
And what of our coming restoration? If there was no way for Christ to bypass suffering, we won’t find a shortcut. But here is a hope to cling to: God brought infinite good out of Christ’s brutal death, and he will turn our little troubles into great blessings.
Christmas is the story of the omnipotent I Am becoming a suffering saviour. He endured death and decay in order to abolish it. And in the meantime our own suffering grows perseverance, character and hope (Romans 5:3-5). Christmas is the only reason we can have joy in every situation, at each stage of life, no matter the pain each holds.
When Paul says we become like Jesus by sharing in his suffering he reminds us that we are changing from our ragged selves into a bright reflection of something more beautiful than we can imagine (Philippians 3:8-11). Of course we want that transformation, but suffering isn’t how we’d choose to effect it. I definitely wouldn’t – I’d prefer to get there by reading great books, going on memorable adventures with inspiring people, and finding constant success. But every time we face pain, disappointment and futility, they remind us of this hard and comforting reality: We aren’t yet who we’re meant to be. We aren’t yet where we’re meant to be. Suffering proves it.
So we can relish the tension. This planet is in the “pains of childbirth,” and when the new earth is born every tear from the beginning of time will shine like a diamond in its light. We celebrate Jesus’ literal birth, one that led to suffering and death, because we have the hope of his resurrection and the promise of a spiritual rebirth.
What child is this? He is our suffering Saviour.
Maryanne Wardlaw is TSCF’s Communications Manager.