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Theologian Discusses How Christmas Brings Light To A Dark Year


* This month on our program, we've been looking at December holidays - Hanukkah, Bodhi Day - and the light and enlightenment they can offer in the darkness of winter. That's certainly true of Christmas - the Christian Messiah born under a star, given to humanity amid sheep and shepherds outside of Bethlehem. Could that story of humility, suffering and deliverance be even more poignant this year? Eboni Marshall Turman is a theologian at Yale Divinity School. She was the youngest woman to preach at Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church and joins us from New York now. Thanks so much for being with us.

EBONI MARSHALL TURMAN: Oh, it's such a pleasure, Scott. Thank you for having me.

SIMON: What parts of the Christmas story stand up for you, especially right now in this season?

TURMAN: I think the most poignant is the idea of God coming amidst the most unexpected circumstances. That is really the story of the Christ child being born in a manger, born in a barn - that this child, beginning in such humble and lowly circumstances, is indeed the savior of the world.

SIMON: There's a lot of pain in the Christmas story - in Matthew, the pain felt by families in Bethlehem after King Herod murdered every male child under 2. In Luke, we get an insight into Mary's pain giving birth in a barn among animals. How do we reconcile pain with the birth of the Messiah? If there is a God, why do little children suffer?

TURMAN: The most beautiful part of the story of Christmas is that God actually understands our human predicament. God was born between blood and feces, born of a woman in the poverty of a barn. This God would go on to be crucified and to die. God understands human pain. God understands human suffering and the experiences of grief. God knows what that is and is proximate to us in our realities of that.

What this story also reveals as we think about Herod, who asserted himself as the king of the Jews, which is the reason why he wanted to kill all of these children because of the word that was out that a messiah was being born - what we can attest to, living in these times, is that evil is real. It is present in the world. Despite that, though, we have a God who comes in light and in hope in the middle of the darkness. And the word of God tells us, especially in this advent season, that the darkness does not overcome it.

SIMON: Let me ask you about Joseph. Well, he thought he and Mary were at an end. She was pregnant, and not by him. What do you think the story of Christmas teaches us about a father's faith in times of uncertainty and anger?

TURMAN: What we see specifically in Matthew is this disbelief, potential humiliation at the fact that Mary - right? - his betrothed was with child. In the midst of that and all of the feelings that go with that, the angel of the Lord comes and says fear not, gives Joseph a word of hope and encouragement. And I think that the message there for us is that even when the circumstances are just unbelievable - we cannot believe some of the things that we are dealing with this Christmas season. Fear not. God is still in control. That is really the call of faith.

SIMON: Reverend, may I ask, have you found your faith tested over these last few months?

TURMAN: It has been a struggle. There have been deaths throughout my community - my religious community, my extended community. We cannot grieve. We cannot funeralize. We cannot comfort those who mourn in the ways that we have grown accustomed to because of the threat of the pandemic. I have been estranged from my family, like so many. My mother is a frontline worker. She is vulnerable to COVID-19. She's been working every day serving her community. I'm a new mother of twins who were about 3 months old when COVID-19 hit. And I'm a professor with responsibilities to my institution, my students. I'm a wife. And so I have been tested in my faith day in and day out. But I believe firmly that God is up to something big even when we have no idea what that is and even when everything before us would seem to suggest that nothing good could come of this, right? I believe that God is still working. In my tradition, we would say God is still in the blessing business. Grace is indeed coming.

SIMON: Wow. May I ask you to close with a prayer, scripture, something that maybe you've turned to this year, brings you comfort now?

TURMAN: Absolutely. I think that my words of prayer will reflect the words of Mary in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 1, Verse 45. (Reading) Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord.

Here, of course, Mary has just spoken of her faith in God, that God is going to bring low those who sit high, that God is going to bring relief for the poor and the marginalized, those who have been cast away. And I am going to believe that, despite the circumstances, that there will be a fulfillment. In the King James version of the book, it says that there will be a performance of those things which have been told us by the Lord. That is the substance of my faith in this Christmas season.

SIMON: The Reverend Eboni Marshall Turman teaches divinity at Yale and to us today. Thank you so much, and merry Christmas.

TURMAN: Merry Christmas, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.