Every year we celebrate Advent. We celebrate the coming of Christ to save the world. The only problem is he didn’t save the world and he doesn’t save me in the way I’d hoped. He doesn’t fix my problems. He doesn’t remove my pain. He doesn’t make life easier so I can live it the way I want.
The real saving that happens is the saving that God intended to do from the very beginning. It’s a salvation of presence. God comes into our lives, and suffers alongside of us. He doesn’t save us from suffering. He saves us from suffering alone. It was his plan from the beginning and it is reflected in the names Mary and Joseph were told to call Jesus from before the day he was even born. Craig Barnes explains it this way:
It must have been striking to Joseph and Mary that the angel gave them two different names for their son. The first name, Jesus, means savior. The second, Immanuel, means God with us.
The pairing of these names signals a reversal in our typical understanding of salvation. We don’t usually think of salvation as having God with us. We would rather think of it as our being with God, and as being saved from how it is. We would rather think of “the victorious Christian life.” But in Jesus Christ God is revealed as the Savior-Immanuel, which means that salvation is not our ascent out of the hard, pain-filled, compromised conditions of this world. Salvation is God’s descent down to the lost world that he loves. Yearning, pg. 116
Over time, I’ve come to experience this as a profound salvation. The anxiety of needing God to make everything work, and the crises of faith that used to happen when things didn’t go well has gone away. Now, I’m aware that in all situations, God’s love is with me. When things go badly, I’m not loved less.
Merton talks about this sort of life this way:
If I have this divine life in me, what do the accidents of pain and pleasure, hope and fear, joy and sorrow matter to me? They are not my life and they have little to do with it. Why should I fear anything that cannot rob me of God, and why should I desire anything that cannot give me possession of Him?
Exterior things come and go, but why should they disturb me? Why should joy excite me or sorrow cast me down, achievement delight me or failure depress me, life attract or death repel me if I live only in the Life that is within me by God’s gift?
…It is the easiest thing in the world to possess this life and this joy; all you have to do is believe and love; and yet people waste their whole lives in appalling labor and difficulty and sacrifice to get things that make real life impossible. New Seeds of Contemplation, pg. 159-160
In Advent, we celebrate that God came. He didn’t remove all the pain and suffering in our lives, but he promises to be with us through it all. And as Merton describes, that robs pain and suffering of it’s power. “For the suffering in suffering is the lack of love, and the wounds in wounds are the abandonment, and the powerlessness in pain is unbelief.” (Moltmann)
Join me in celebrating our suffering God who saves us from suffering — not by sparing us suffering — but by removing the pain in suffering from our lives through the presence of His love.
Join New City for Advent worship services.
Image from flickr.