The year 2012 saw the war crimes trial of ex-Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic, who faced 11 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity over the 1992-1995 Bosnian conflict, including the charge that he orchestrated the massacre of more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys at the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in 1995. It once again reminded us of the horrific and inhumane behaviour of some leaders who use whatever power they have to massacre other human beings – women and children included. The sanctity of human life seemingly means nothing to them.

As we come to the end of each year, we prepare to hear again the biblical story of the nativity, with the shepherds, the wise men, their gifts and the star. It’s a story many receive with warm and happy ritual, often regardless of religious affiliation. Whether we hear it merely culturally, or as the bold story of Christ’s Advent, it’s a story which has been considered fit for children’s plays and their accompanying joyful music at schools and shopping malls. But to many it must seem surreal, far removed from the harsh realities of the real world with its sickening headlines. Perhaps they’re among the many victims who at that same time await news of the search for yet another child sexual predator or the outcome of the hunt for the brute who bludgeoned to death a nearby defenceless pensioner in her own home for a few pounds or dollars.

What’s the relevance, after all, of what’s increasingly regarded as a mere winter’s tale? Is it at best just a form of escapism? But make no mistake about it. This is no mere wintery tale. This is the historical account of a reality which itself is more than a little tinged with harshness. For even here, in this story which we tell with appropriate joy, a story of joyful news and memorable characters, there’s also a dark side with tears and fear and sorrow. Even Christians who thoroughly love the story and believe the accounts of the infant’s birth often forget its harsh reality. So, allow me to remind you.

When Herod discovered that the Magi had tricked him, leaving town without reporting where they’d found the new child king, he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under. He was leaving nothing to chance in his paranoid desire to be rid of all known rivals whom he thought might want to take his throne from him. At Herod’s murderous decree, Matthew recalls what was said through the prophet Jeremiah long ago, now again sadly fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more” (Matthew 2:16-18).

Herod’s violent reaction to the news of a newborn king casts a very sad shadow on a beautiful story. Well might we remember with delight the Magi outsmarting Herod by leaving for their country using another road for the return journey. We remember with triumph that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were able to escape to safety despite the murderous attempts of a powerful ruler. But at what cost? In that little town of Bethlehem, Herod’s command caused excruciating sorrow. In fact, the inclusion of this frightful incident is a really grim addition – no wonder we rarely think about it.

But what if its inclusion turns out to be the very thing that can move us to believe that the story of Christ’s birth is actually about the real world we know and not a world of fanciful stories? For here, within the greatest story of God’s reaching out to our world is a realistic account of humanity’s destructive ways. Here is recorded the deep and painful suffering of the very real world into which Jesus came. The grave offence of humanity, the pain of humanity, and the agonizing need for a radically different hope – they’re all part of this same story.

We live in a world of tinpot dictators who corruptly cling to the reins of power by ruthlessly crushing all who threaten to get in their way. History, as well as modern times, is strewn with examples. We live in a world where a silent holocaust of inconvenient infant life takes place. And where senseless killings shatter the tranquillity of simple village life. It was like that in Dunblane, Scotland, when a troubled loner turned his weapon on innocent children at the village school, and created a bloodbath, leading to this response in print the following day …

‘Christ was born among innocent slaughter and died on the Cross to pay the cost of our terrible freedom – a freedom by which we can do the greatest good or the greatest evil.’ That was taken from the London Times leader column, the day after the 13 March 1996 massacre at an Infant School in Dunblane, Scotland. The essence of the Christmas story is that God has joined us in suffering. I recall that expression first being used by a Church of Scotland minister when he was interviewed by a BBC News reporter after Pan Am Flight 103 exploded in the sky over Lockerbie in Scotland on December 21, 1988. “It was like meteors falling from the sky,” described one resident, while others described the sky lighting up and a large, deafening roar. They soon saw pieces of the plane as well as pieces of bodies landing in fields, in backyards, on fences, and on rooftops. Fuel from the plane was already on fire before it hit the ground; some of it landed on houses, making the houses explode. One of the plane’s wings hit the ground in the southern area of Lockerbie. It hit the ground with such impact that it made a crater 155 feet long, displacing approximately 1500 tons of dirt. Twenty-one of Lockerbie’s houses were completely destroyed and eleven of its residents were dead. Thus, the total death toll was 270 (the 259 aboard the plane plus the 11 on the ground).

Finally, and quite unprofessionally revealing, I suspect, his own unbelieving sentiments, the reporter turned on the minister and almost spat out his next and last question: ‘Where is your God now?’ To which the calm, unforgettable reply was: ‘God has joined us in suffering – in the person of his son, he came as a man, Jesus Christ, and joined us in suffering.’ Through the Christmas story, God has answered critics like that reporter. For he did indeed come down to suffer the injustices of life on earth as it is now, very different from the original condition in which he created it. Jesus was born in what we think of as a ‘stable bare’ and was with ‘the poor and mean and lowly’. He was born in a land that was under an occupying force, the Romans. While still a child, He experienced the rigours of life as a refugee; as a displaced person. In public life, he was soon to learn what it was like to be misunderstood, even to be ostracized, and be at the receiving end of a gross miscarriage of justice.

Yes, we can safely say that God has joined us in suffering. He’s not some cosmic spectator, standing callously by. God has joined us in our suffering. You see, in one sense, Elie Wiesel was right when in a Nazi concentration camp he imagined it was God hanging on the gallows as he watched a young boy who’d been hanged. For God has joined us in suffering. He didn’t exclude himself from human suffering. He, too, hung on a gallows, just outside Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.

One Christian commentator (J.R. Stott) has said: ‘I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. … In the real world of pain, how could [any]one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many … temples in different … countries and stood respectfully before the statue … a remote look on [its] face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God-forsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his. There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross which symbolises divine suffering.’

It seems so fitting to come back in concluding this chapter to the suffering involved in the Christmas story. Someone has written:

Jesus Christ
Unwanted as a baby
Fugitive as a child
Misunderstood as a boy
Rejected in His home town
Laughed at by the religious leaders
Betrayed by His friends
Condemned by the government to die
Forsaken by God to die on a cross.

The second verse adds:

But then He arose
And since then the initiative is in the hands of those who follow Him
To make every baby wanted
To give every fugitive a home
To give everyone a purpose for living
To make every town a place where He is worshipped!

Let’s not romanticize the nativity scene in the way some Christmas cards do. It was hardly a sterile chamber in which to give birth. Surely there was dirt; surely, too, there were animal smells and flies when ‘Immanuel’ was born: Immanuel whose name means ‘God with us’ – with us in experiencing the hardships of this life. Sympathy is one thing; salvation is quite another. And there has been born to us a Saviour who is Christ the Lord. He joined us in suffering here that we might one day join him where suffering will be a thing of the past, gone for ever. Have you truly believed in your heart that the central figure of the Christmas story once suffered and died for you?