True Crime and The Christ Child

By Heidi Forget, LICSW
Associate Dean of Clinical Education/Counselor, Center for Student Counseling & Wellness

This month we enter advent together. In the days and weeks to come each of us will embark on a journey of remembering, celebrating and participating in a season of mystery. We will join our brothers and sisters of millennia past in the curious search for something truly holy.

Generally speaking, we as a people are drawn to the mysterious. It’s why our bookshelves are lined with political cliffhangers and murder mysteries; the most popular podcasts are true crime stories; and our streaming services obsessively suggest tales of unsolved crime, espionage, heists, deceptions and hoaxes of all kinds. This is quizzical to me because we are also a society suffering from soaring rates of anxiety, depression and suicide—all conditions begging for structure, predictability, order, connection and meaning. Given this insatiable demand for mystery, deduction might lead us to conclude (at least on a surface level) that we as a society must be missing it in our own lives. And, since the state of the Church is often a looking glass into the state of society, perhaps this could also be true for us Christ-followers as well.

It seems to me that over the centuries we have felled, limbed and bucked the story of Jesus down to a smooth, unrecognizable stick of a gospel. We have whittled it from the enormous, unruly, craggy-branched Oak that is the life and teaching of Christ, neglecting the mystery required to understand his unexpected ways and his unconditional love. I suppose we have preferred instead a moral certitude that enables us to present our belief as a discrete package with clearly defined edges, to be delivered to those who don’t have it.

How have we as the Church become so unfamiliar, so unacquainted with wonder? Without it, how are we to hold space for the inexplicable? If we’re being honest, isn’t this the space where a virgin birth of God incarnate resides? It is very difficult to be sure of a thing while also remaining open to the possibility that we might not actually fully understand the thing we are sure of. How can we claim to be confident about what God wants, thinks and desires for his creation and at the same time be open to the expansive, infinite, enigmatic reality of a God that is both the beginning and the end? I fear that in losing the practice of being curious about the mystery of God we might be disregarding components of God’s essential nature, manifest through Christ. And what if losing the practice of seeing God this way means that we also lose the practice of viewing each other this way? And if that is true, what a monumental task to love our neighbor as ourselves when we are motivated by providing guidance instead of asking questions.

Mystery, as we all know, is that which is hidden or hard to explain. It describes something that is disorienting or unlikely, but my favorite aspect is that it speaks to the nature of something or someone being unknowable. I love this word. It feels comforting to me. Maybe it’s because it matches my (and dare I say, all our) experiences of life; experiences of blissful joy, heartbreaking grief and countless experiences that fit in no category at all. It matches my experience sitting with clients in thousands of hours of therapy as they seek healing, comfort, growth and wholeness. But maybe most of all, it matches the questions I hear the world ask of a God they may not know yet but yearn to be held by. After all, isn’t mystery at the very nucleus of our faith; the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen?

Christmas, of course, centers the birth of a baby on a dark, mysterious night over 2,000 years ago. This night marked the turning from an age of exhaustive Rabbinic instruction for navigating God’s favor to an age where unlikely characters, perplexing stories and unprecedented religious permissions declared God’s favor already secured. With the entrance of Jesus, we are invited into a new way of recognizing and responding to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But the entrance of Jesus also invites us into a new way of recognizing and responding to every human we encounter. Isn’t this what advent is all about? The quiet overthrow of an ancient monolith of complex laws sorting the clean from the unclean by the soiled birth of a single, small infant. At Christmas we celebrate the ushering in of the mystery of God’s unconditional love, embodied in a naked, defenseless, very human baby. And maybe even more mysterious, the birth of Christ marks the adoption day of all mankind into God’s benevolent tribe, for all eternity.

What if the birth of Jesus was not the finale to an ancient, blundering, holy call-and-response between God and his people, but instead was God’s declaration that from now until the end time, we are enough—we are fearfully and wonderfully made, just as we are. And what if our capacity to fully realize that truth relies on our ability to behold others in exactly the same way? This inscrutable truth would mean that our lives can be of absolutely no greater value than another’s, despite our good decision-making, integrity or character-filled ways. The very nature of unconditional forgiveness means we are not made worthy by how we come for it, only that we come for it.

What if this mystery is about drawing us into meager, hay-filled places where only an animal would stay in order to teach us how to fully inhabit our own magnificent, yet ill-fitting bodies, just like the little one God poured himself into that night amidst cattle and sheep? And what if it is also about our learning to behold all bodies as precious and beloved as they are?

Maybe the birth of Christ is a reminder that we are to remain expectant about the mystery of a Holy God.

When you break it down, very little of the birth and life of Christ makes much sense; the details are unlikely, confusing and most definitely unknowable. There is so much about Christ’s life that we do not know. There are hours upon hours of his life and living that we will never know anything about. And what we do read of Jesus’ days often leaves us befuddled, unable to square our desire to know right from wrong with the resulting confusion his responses sometimes evoke. Jesus answered questions with even more questions, often in puzzling, disorienting stories in lieu of using his few red-lettered opportunities to confirm established religious superiority for those who knew, professed and kept the law.

What if we are to feed the poor; clothe the naked; and care for the sick, the widow, the parentless, the disempowered, the ostracized and the friendless because of what is required of us when we do? Poverty, sickness, grief, trauma, loss, pain and injustice are healed in connection with others, and connection requires curiosity and humility. There is little use in these spaces for us as some sort of salvific social worker bringing a form of the gospel that cannot tolerate another’s humanity or the fervent cries that come with it. Perhaps we are nearest to living out the greatest commandment when we are confused, theologically prostrated, weary, broken-hearted and weeping with those who weep. When we are immersed in the complexity of what it means to be present to another’s full humanity (and by extension our own no less complicated humanity) the certainty of what is right and wrong just becomes, well, irrelevant. It’s the answer to a question that is no longer being asked. What if becoming well acquainted with the fullness of being human and protecting others in their own humanness is not permissive acceptance but is actually central to living and loving like Jesus? What if our humanity isn’t something to be wrangled and tamed, stripped down into submission and purified, but instead is already in fact “imago Dei”?

What if our proximity to what is fully human in others is what matters most to Jesus? Not because we, “the saved,” can deliver a surrogate priesthood to the “unsaved,” but because complete understanding and total acknowledgement of our own humanity is what Jesus needs in order to save us. Christ’s birth did not gather the local clergy and the pious to the temple to receive their commendation for choosing righteous living. Instead it summoned the Zoroastrians from afar and the dirty, tired shepherds to be the first to bear witness to the miracle and the mystery. They were the honored few who first got to see what perfect love looked like. Don’t misunderstand me–I don’t think God is uninterested in our righteous living. I think it is of utmost importance to God, but perhaps we have misunderstood what righteous living looks like.

I recall hearing many times in sermons over the years that to be holy is to be “set apart.” But perhaps we aren’t meant to be set apart, and instead set within. What if being holy is about a messy, mutual sanctification that can only take place by loving our neighbors as ourselves? Perhaps Christ’s birth invited us into a stable by way of a star because if he had arrived any other way––in a temple or to a queen––we would have cloaked and sanitized his humanity in order to make him presentable and worthy. We would have dressed him in robes and jewels, adorned him in gold, stifled his hungry cries and weighed down his baby body with the trappings of a religion he wanted no part of.

My prayer is that this advent would be a reminder to each of us that we are loved by a Creator who clothed himself, and us, in humanity. He fashioned us to laugh, to weep, to fear, to crave, to taste, to be satiated, to love, to be enraged, to brim with envy and jealousy, to forgive, to be curious, to question, to seek and to wonder. Hopefully this advent will be a reminder that we would all do well to remain expectant about the mystery of a holy God.

Merry Christmas, my fellow Magi. Step boldly and humbly into this new year, bringing your full, human self with your gifts of frankincense and myrrh to this world; a world that is seeking the mystery of mercy and the unconditional love of the Christ child. May we reacquaint ourselves with wonder, may we be thankful for the provision of the past year that has allowed us to return to the pilgrimage of advent once again and may we be about the business of messy, mutual sanctification in the year to come.