ON SUFJAN STEVENS' 2012 Christmas album, Silver & Gold, he includes “Ah Holy Jesus,” a hymn about Christ’s crucifixion. Stevens sings: “For me, kind Jesus, was thine incarnation / thy mortal sorrow, and thy life’s oblation / thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion / for my salvation.” The cross on Golgotha casts a long shadow toward Bethlehem. When the child in the manger grows into adulthood, our world kills him. The story of the incarnation is the story of crucifixion.
For Stevens to sing such a hymn during this season reminds us that Jesus was born into an anguished world—an anguish that took hold in his life, an agony unto death. “The whole life of Jesus comes under the heading ‘suffered,’” theologian Karl Barth commented. “For the evangelists Luke and Matthew, the childhood of Jesus, his birth in the stable of Bethlehem, were already under the sign of suffering,” Barth continued. “The entire life of Jesus is lived ... in the shadow of the cross.”
Jesus didn’t offer salvation as an escape plan from our life’s travails but as a commitment to heal us from the habits of sin, the violence that cuts through each of us and the world. Christmas Day doesn’t redeem our wounded world in an instant—as if the old order vanishes with the newborn’s first cry. Instead, Jesus undergoes a human life and entrusts our lives to the Holy Spirit’s care.
Salvation is a salve, the soothing presence of the Spirit. This same Comforter took care of Mary at Jesus’ birth and ministered to him during his passion. “For me, kind Jesus, was thine incarnation ... and thy life’s oblation.”