This time between Christmas and Epiphany, occurring on Jan. 6, is known in the Christian tradition as the Twelve Days of Christmas.
This interval moves us from the birth of Jesus to the early recognition of his divinity by the Magi. It is a celebration that carries us from the sentimental to the sacramental, and not surprisingly, brings both comfort and challenge as we ponder what it meant and continues to mean for God to become human.
This Christmas was particularly poignant as we hugged our children even tighter between tears of grief for those who lost their own in Newtown. It has been a season of disquieting questions and attempts at answers, oft times more troubling than the questions. Authorities dutifully attempt to discern the details of how, but no investigation, no information or explanation will ever really tell us why.
Pseudo-prophets who pretend to answer “why” by invoking God’s judgment are not only misguided but display a disturbing lack of understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures, the teachings of Jesus and the subsequent lessons of the New Testament. The perturbing question I have frequently heard is “Where is God?”
I confess that, upon seeing those 20 little ones gone before their time, I too, mumbled and muttered that question between my tears.
We are not alone in our questioning, even the psalmist dared to ask, in one translation of Psalm 35 crying, “How long, O Lord, will you look on and do nothing?”
Yes, we can grasp that God has given each of us a free will, but then the question comes: if God is omnipotent, why can’t God take back that will when clearly it is going to do so much damage? Even human parents would stop their child from hurting another, wouldn’t they? But then, the shooter’s mother didn’t or couldn’t.
We attach certain attributes to God: omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence and omnibenevolence among others. But bottom line, these are our concepts, our best guesses at understanding God; they do not necessarily define who God is. Who really knows that? Philosophers and theologians have written tomes over centuries only to discover that God is ultimately beyond our understanding. God’s ways are unfathomable to us — anything less, anything that we can grasp is not really God, but our own projection, just us making God in our image. I am reminded of my college roommate, an avowed atheist, asking if God could create a rock too heavy for God to lift — a question not really about God but about the concept of omnipotence. C.S. Lewis said it well: “nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.”
The only things we can know about God are those things that God shows us, and that requires a certain level of humility, an acknowledgement that, as humans we cannot completely grasp who God is, or to get back to our original question: where God is when terrible things happen? If all of this sounds a bit philosophical, it may be. Minds much brighter than mine have attempted to expound these questions, and, if we stay there, in our heads, not only do we walk away confused, bewildered or judgmental, but we also miss the place where God does meet us, the place where God can be known, that place where God does come – our hearts. Things are not always what they seem.
God is present, very present, but not in the ways we have been taught or trained to think. It was the same 2,000 years ago when Jesus was born.
He was hailed as a king with more firepower than Caesar, a king who would defeat Rome by wielding more power, but it didn’t happen that way. He came as a child, lived as a simple rabbi, and was killed like a criminal on a cross.
And there is the epiphany: God does not come overwhelming us as a conquering king; the incarnate God meets us in our pain, in our weakness, in our questioning — and like Jesus, raises us to new life.
The Rev. Michael J. Duda lives in Rockport and serves as pastor of the First Church in Wenham.