Christmas celebrations focus on joy, with lots of festivity, food and family celebrations along the way. We rejoice in the wonderful truth of God with us, born into our world in Jesus, sharing our lives, taking our sin and pain on himself.
But there are also notes of suffering woven deeply into the story around Jesus’ birth. Luke recounts the angel’s good news of great joy, and the angelic choirs chorus of glory to God and peace on earth (Luke 2:10-14): but also tells us of Simeon’s sombre prophecy to Mary, that a sword would pierce her own soul (Luke 2:34-5). And Matthew’s account of the wise men coming with wealthy gifts to pay homage to the infant Jesus is followed closely by Joseph needing to flee with Mary and Jesus to save the child’s life. And in the background we hear the “wailing and loud lamentation” following Herod’s brutal massacre of the infants at Bethlehem, the grief of “Rachel weeping for her children: she refused to be consoled because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:16-18)
Joy, glory – and women’s sorrow.
After the Fall, our stories became suffused by suffering. In cultures where girls spend more time in domestic space, broken relationships between parents can affect girls more than boys. Women tell of the impact of destructive conflict between their parents, sometimes leading to divorce. Others have had broken relationships with their parents, some with abusive mothers, some enduring physical or sexual abuse. Growing up, some women will experience infidelity and rejection in their own marriage, or depression. For some women, Muslim and others, the suffering that they have experienced in their lives may help set them on their pathway to discovering a deeper love and freedom in Jesus. In their distress, they find rest in Jesus, the One who brings healing to body, soul and relationships.
But as in the birth of Jesus, our joy in God present with us, even as He brings hope and healing, doesn’t mean the end of hardship. Suffering marks particularly the lives of those who choose to follow the Suffering Servant. Women from Muslim background who give their allegiance to the Messiah tell of tribulation they face because of their choice. Many encounter family rejection, being told to leave their home, public ostracism and shame, police interrogations, their family refusing to talk to them for years, being shunned at family gatherings. Others undergo physical violence, being spat at, beaten and kicked, their Bible ripped up, being locked in their room, their family refusing to eat with them. The same family members who have loved and supported them now use witchcraft against them, or plot to kill them.
Even as suffering can be part of our path to knowing Jesus, it can be part of our continuing to draw closer to Him. It is not unusual to hear women say that they would not want to have exchanged their affliction for a life without adversity. They talk of being discipled through suffering, of learning lessons there that are deeply part of their ministry today. They talk of knowing truths about God in their heads – but it is through their suffering that their knowledge is transformed into lived experience in their hearts. Suffering and joy together, as suffering becomes the pathway of living the truth and tenderness of the indwelling Spirit of Christ within us. Paul sums it up in his letter to the Christians in Rome:
We rejoice in the hope of God’s glory. Not only this, but we also rejoice in sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance, character, and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Romans 5:2-5)
As we look back at our own times of brokenness, loneliness, depression, we too can recognise how God shaped us through it, letting it bring us more into healing, wholeness, and intimacy with Him. The gifts that we have to give others now are drawn more from the times of darkness than from seasons of success and comfort. The Messiah’s own road to perfection[i] and victory through, not from, suffering, is one that he invites us on.
We celebrate Christmas with full hearts, the Good News of God coming to live among us in through the birth of Messiah Jesus. And if we are spending time with family members, we also remember our sisters in Jesus who may be facing ostracism or violence because they follow the Immanent Lord. We rejoice in God with us: and we can also rejoice in suffering, theirs and ours, praying that it will draw us deeper into the love of the Spirit of Jesus who lives in us.
As we look forward to the New Year, we wonder what the year will bring of joy or sorrow. This we know, that we walk into the future together with Jesus Messiah who was born, who was killed, and raised again to life: so we walk in a hope that does not disappoint, but that points us to eternal life, healing and freedom.
[i] Hebrews 2:10
© When Women Speak … January 2018
Moyra Dale spent over two decades in the Middle East (particularly Egypt, Jordan, and Syria) with her family working in education, specializing in Adult Literacy (Arabic) and teacher training. She is an ethnographer whose research has included exploring adult literacy in Egypt and the women’s mosque movement in Syria through women’s accounts and understanding of their own lives and realities. Currently based in Melbourne, Australia, she writes, teaches, trains, and supervises students in Islam and cross-cultural understanding, with a focus on Muslim women. Moyra holds a PhD in Education (La Trobe University) and DTh (Melbourne School of Theology).