Once in a while when Sheryl and I are feeling especially stressed, one of us will ask, “Can we run away now?” It’s a wry joke between us. We know we have more blessings than we can count, and though at times it’s difficult to affirm, my faith tells me I’m exactly where God wants me to be, even if it’s in the midst of stress and doubt.
Sheryl and I are not the only ones who occasionally want to run away to relieve our stress. It’s a human impulse most of us feel in one way or another when the stress of life gets too high. It’s the impulse that prompted the psalmist to write, “O that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest; truly, I would flee far away; I would lodge in the wilderness; I would hurry to find a shelter for myself from the raging wind and tempest” (Ps. 55:6-8).
One of our characteristically human aspirations is the desire for freedom from things that limit life and make us less than we are created to be. One of the highest expressions of that aspiration was offered by President Roosevelt in his 1941 State of the Union address. In that speech he envisioned a world founded on four essential human freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of every person to worship God in his or her own way, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Those four freedoms cover a lot of ground.
Closer to home, others of us talk about smaller, more intimate settings in which we yearn for freedom. Someone recently described the situation of many of us when she wrote in the Buffalo News, “We wake up each morning to enter a workplace, to step into ‘there.’ We work diligently and often exhaust ourselves, at times feeling like we are strapped to a treadmill and can’t get off.” We want to be free of that, too.
Just as the yearning for freedom is characteristic of us, the gift of freedom is characteristic of God, and it’s the gift God offers in Jesus Christ. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” Jesus said (John 14:6). “If you continue in my word,” he said to his friends, “you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32). When I make the commitment and effort to learn from Jesus – not learn about Jesus but learn from Jesus by entering into a living relationship with him – I don’t need to run away. I don’t need “wings like a dove,” to “fly away and be at rest.” I have freedom, rest and peace here and now.
Christmas, the annual celebration of God’s incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth, ought to remind us of at least two things. First, it was God’s intent to become weak enough to be fully involved in our world, our situation in life, and to give us freedom for life in all its fullness. God does not come in Christ to free us from a life of challenge, hardship, and stress and to deliver us into another world or another life. God comes in Christ to call us to freedom within this life of challenge, hardship, and stress and to open the doors of heaven here and now, in this world, in this life.
This life is not a dress rehearsal for a life to come where, according to John’s vision, every tear will be wiped away and mourning and crying and pain will be no more (Rev. 21:4). According to John’s vision, that condition of life comes to us here (Rev. 21:2-3), and it’s available to us whenever anyone is in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). Christmas reminds us that the life we sometimes want to run away to find is in fact spread all around us already, awaiting only our attention, our recognition, and our commitment (Gosp. Thomas 113).
Here’s the second thing Christmas ought to bring to mind. Christmas is not about what God did for you and me and others who believe. Christmas is about what God is doing through us for the whole world. “In Christ,” St. Paul wrote, “God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Cor. 5:19). In Christ God has not delivered us to a new and better life; in Christ God has chosen us for a divine purpose, to bring that new and better life to the whole human family in a universal community of grace.
As Israel awaited release from captivity in Babylon, Isaiah heard God say: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa. 49:6). God was giving Israel its freedom so they would be an agent of healing to the whole world.
That’s what God does in the gift Christ. God calls us to freedom not so we will be free but so we will function as agents of reconciliation and love, to show the world that there’s another way to live together, and to invite the world to join us in the experiment of building authentic, holy community.
Sheryl and I will, I suspect, continue to feel the impulse to run away occasionally. We will also continue to contemplate the divine blessings that are ours here and now. And each Christmas, if we are true to the meaning of the day, we will take time to consider the purpose for which God has bestowed those blessings.