by Chris Kuo
The past two years have been filled with absence. Ever since the pandemic first started wreaking havoc around the world, we’ve had to grapple with silent streets, empty classrooms, and shuttered stores. We’ve had to isolate ourselves from family, friends, and other loved ones, our routine human contact replaced with flickering Zoom screens. Absence has felt particularly palpable in a world where even a handshake or a hug could spread sickness and death.
During this pandemic, many of us have also wrestled with the absence of God. Where was God when millions of people died from the coronavirus? Where was God when my friend or family member was on a ventilator? Where was God when my university shut down and life spiraled into chaos?
It’s a reformulation of an age-old question: if the Divine Creator is good, loving, and all-powerful, then why does so much suffering and evil exist—and why does He seem so silent?
The people of Jesus’s day must have wondered something similar. At the time right before Jesus’s birth, the people of Israel had experienced a prolonged period of what seemed to be divine disregard. This period, between the final book of the Old Testament and the arrival of Jesus, has been called the “400 Years of Silence”: there were no prophets sent by God, no astonishing displays of divine power, no world-altering wonders like the splitting of the Red Sea.
At the time, the Jewish people were also a subjugated nation. The Roman Empire had taken over Israel; the rule of Caesar must have felt much more real than the presence of the Lord. Silence. Absence. Where was God in all of this?
The answer was utterly unexpected. One holy night, in a small Jewish town, He shattered the silence. The Word became flesh. The Creator entered His creation. The God who spoke the stars into existence became a baby, lying in a manger, sleeping in a feeding trough for farm animals. God with us.
This is the miracle of Christmas: God chose to lay aside power and strength and privilege to come to Earth as someone fully human. We are, to borrow the words of J.B. Philips, forever the Visited Planet.
After the birth of Christ, the rest of the Gospels show us God living a human life. When we read of Jesus interacting with others, we see God in action. It demonstrates astonishing vulnerability on His part. This is God eating and drinking, God getting tired and falling asleep, God rejoicing, God weeping over the death of a friend, God being betrayed and beaten and spat upon, God nailed to a cross. Here, He says to the world, this is who I am.
But what does this mean for us, over 2,000 years later, in a world devastated by sickness, poverty, climate change, and so on?
Part of the answer is that the Incarnation—the arrival of God on earth—tells us something about who He is: a God who draws near. He leaves the ninety-nine sheep to chase after the one (Luke 15:3-7). He isn’t a clockmaker God who creates the world and then lets it run its course; instead, He loves us deeply and demonstrated that love by becoming one of us. As the Gospel of John says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (3:16).
The Incarnation also shows how God works at unexpected times and in unexpected places. Who could have imagined that He would be born not in a Roman palace or in a Jewish temple but in a lowly manger? Only a select few witnessed the miracle: Mary and Joseph and some shepherds. Today, God still works, though He is rarely obvious or expected.
The Christmas story also means God knows sickness, suffering, even death—because He lived here on Earth and experienced each of those things. One of the most poignant verses in the Bible is also the shortest. It describes Jesus’s reaction upon seeing his dead friend Lazarus: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). This is a God who hears our prayers and who understands our pain. As Edward Shillito wrote in his poem, “Jesus of the Scars,”
The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds but Thou alone.
Scripture tells us that those who have faith in Jesus are filled with His presence. When Jesus left Earth, He promised His followers that He would remain with them in Spirit. And yet we also look forward to a time when Jesus will return in-person. On that day, He will finally bring an end to sickness and suffering, and He will wipe away every tear (Rev. 21:4). Death will be no more—only eternal Life with Him.
And so, we live today between two Advents, between two arrivals. We still live in a world where sickness, brokenness, and sadness surround us. It’s a time of waiting and of absence. But it’s also a time for hope and for urgency, because God calls each of us to join Him as He redeems the brokenness in our world. There’s a beautiful song from Matthew West called “Do Something”:
I woke up this morning
Saw a world full of trouble now, thought
How’d we ever get so far down, and
How’s it ever gonna turn around
So I turned my eyes to Heaven
I thought, “God, why don’t You do something?”
… He said, “I did, I created you.”
The Church is meant to be the hands and feet of Jesus to a hurting world. God calls each of us to practice a mini-Incarnation. Just as God gave up everything to come to earth, we too must do whatever it takes for love. We must set aside privilege, wealth, power, and success to care for the most vulnerable—for the hungry, the sick, the poor, the imprisoned, the outcasts. Imagine if every Christian took this to heart. How could our world stay the same?
This Christmas season, let us draw near to God and to others, remembering that He first drew near to us.
Chris Kuo is a junior at Duke majoring in English and Political Science and pursuing a certificate in Policy Journalism and Media Studies. He served as Editor-in-Chief of Duke Crux during the 2020 – 2021 academic year.
This article is part of the Duke Crux X UVA Bearings 2021 Advent Series, a collaboration between the two Augustine Collective Organizations.