A quick scroll through social media can bring an onslaught of bad news, both globally and in our personal lives. There’s no end to stories about sin ravaging people, families, and whole communities. We suffer broken relationships, dreams deferred, and life-changing illnesses or injuries. Unspeakable losses leave us feeling betrayed or abandoned by those we love.
In our internal and external spaces, we are confronted by disillusioning pain and disappointment. This is the human condition—life in a broken world. And our bodies, as Bessel van der Kolk puts it, keep the score, housing trauma responses within them.
Christians love to say, “But God is still good!” —a statement that’s filled with truth yet rushes past a needed moment of recognition, one that acknowledges the fact that loss, heartbreak, and pain need to be processed for us to experience the warmth and grace of a loving God.
Our communal stress and trauma have been on full display over the last two years as we’ve watched people die separated from loved ones, balanced changes to our work lives, and battled the disorienting effects of extended isolation. As we emerge from the pandemic’s darkest hours, we are grappling with how to rebuild the stabilizing structures of our lives, often with damaged or missing bricks.
While Christmas can be the “most wonderful time of the year,” Advent is a time when we are waiting for the magic to start. How can we find healing from the wounds that refuse to take time off for Christmas break? Where is Jesus in our persistent pain that clamors to be heard above the din of a world chanting its desire to move on from suffering?
The answer comes to us not in an explanation but in a name: Immanuel, or “God with us.” Rather than sending us a distant savior who would rescue us from on high, God sent us a child born in a manger.
God’s invitation to us this Advent season is not one of manufactured joy or avoidance of the pain we’ve endured. Instead, we are invited into a story that reflects the communal trauma of a different time. Yes, Jesus' birth is the fulfillment of divine purpose, but he is also fully human. Our Savior sympathizes with our suffering because he experienced the same from the moment he entered our world as a vulnerable baby.
A Savior Who Suffered
When we think about who Jesus is, we might choose terms like Lord, King, and Son of God. Of course, these are exactly right. But there are descriptions that might not roll off the tongue quite so easily. As Dr. Matthew S. Stanford, CEO of Hope and Healing Center and Institute, observes, Jesus was also a child born into abject poverty, displaced even as an infant with his refugee family. Mary endured tremendous stress during her pregnancy and labor while Jesus was still in her womb. Jesus’ family was blended by necessity, all while enduring the dangers of living in a land hostile to their existence.
Jesus’ life is one shaped from the very beginning by trauma, which does not diminish his kingship or salvific power. In fact, it only enhances our ability to know and be loved by our Savior, who joins us in the mess of our lives.
The fascinating science of trauma teaches us that our responses can be both mental and physical—in fact, we cannot separate the two. As we learn more about Jesus’ life, we know he was an outcast. We know he faced public scrutiny and condemnation. We know he faced rejection from his friends and judgment from people in power. His emotional anguish is detailed in the New Testament as he coped with the pressures of his life by often escaping to pray when overwhelmed by the crowds. But we also see signs of trauma in how Jesus’ physical body responded to this stress. In the Garden of Gethsemane, on the night before his crucifixion, Jesus begins to sweat blood.
“There is a well-documented medical condition in which patients who are under a tremendous amount of emotional stress and physiological stress can, in fact, sweat blood because little blood vessels within the glands burst and then the blood is expressed,” explains Dr. David Acuna, a trauma surgeon.
Under the weight of the sins of the world, Jesus' body began to show signs of acute stress and trauma even before the physical torment leading to the crucifixion, and the crucifixion itself took place. In a moment of overwhelming love for us, dedication to his Father’s will, and desperation to be released from the agony to come, Jesus suffered in his mind, body, and spirit as he knelt in the garden. And then, he surrendered himself to the men who would torture, humiliate, and murder him.
“From a neurobiological perspective, we know that Jesus experienced pain so intense and overwhelming that by any human standards would likely mean he became traumatized,” says author and therapist Aundi Kolber.
“This knowledge brings a different essence to the phrase, ‘God with us.’ God’s nearness to us in pain is not just an empty platitude but instead demonstrated through Jesus’ experiential knowledge of suffering. As a trauma therapist, I’ve learned the absolute necessity of a compassionate witness to heal from pain—which is why I can’t overstate the importance of the compassionate with-ness of our God.”
Unwrapping the Good News
Just like the coziness of the Christmas season isn’t always enough to lift us from our sadness, thin understandings of the gospel can’t help us cling to our faith. Some days, it isn’t enough for us to know that we will go to heaven one day. And the bodily experience of Jesus tells us that it doesn’t have to be.
“Nothing more clearly demonstrates the depth of God’s love for us than Jesus’ willingness to personally experience the traumas associated with a fallen world so that we might be reconciled to the Father,” says Stanford. “Christ is understanding and approachable. He knows what it is to suffer and can truly relate to those he created. The comfort he offers those who have experienced trauma is grounded in his own experience.”
Jesus’ calling this Advent and Christmas season is not merely a plea to remember that someday all of this pain and suffering will end. The true gift of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection, is layered deep with the hope that we are not alone and the pain will not last forever.
Jesus is with us today. He was with us yesterday, walking on a broken earth and suffering its tremendous cruelties just as we do. And, yes, he will be with us when the pain of the past can no longer harm us and its memory can only unite us with the one who bears his scars—our scars—in eternity.
In the weeks to come, you may see an ad on your television screen that tells the story of a savior who is not against us, but for us. Seeking to re-introduce Jesus, the “He Gets Us” campaign shares Jesus’ message of love with the world. Through imagery, the written word, and conversation, the He Gets Us campaign tells the lonely, the anxious, the heartbroken, and the lost about the Jesus who knows exactly how they feel and desires never to leave them alone in it. Churches can get involved by signing up through Gloo to get connected to people who reach out for prayer or conversation during the Christmas season.
No matter the pain, Jesus gets it. May this Advent and Christmas season be a time when many come to know the one who did not shy away from suffering but entered into it so that we might know the wonders of his love.