01/15/2012 05:56 pm ET Updated Mar 16, 2012

A Jesus for the Great Recession (and Other Dark Times)

One of my online professional groups is more like a family: an assortment of advertising people who have been trading wisecracks, debating the latest TV commercials, and sharing life's ups and downs for more than 10 years. These "family ties" sometimes give rise to conversations with a depth you'd never expect online.

It happened again last month. In the midst of the usual holiday greetings, we suddenly began to share our stories from 2011. Many of the stories recounted pain and loss rarely discussed among professional colleagues, let alone people in an online forum. Similarly, the responses were full of solidarity and empathy -- no pat answers or clichés, just honest compassion given and received. It was one of those conversations you never forget.

And it took place, in part, because we dared to share the darkness from our lives.

Darkness is not something that Americans, at least, typically explore. In good times, U.S. culture teems with relentless optimism, happiness, and brightness. Stories of triumph over tragedy fill TV schedules. Candidates for office tout America as the greatest country on earth. We are confident that technology will make our lives better. And then there are the December holidays: "the most wonderful time of the year," we hear repeatedly from piped-in music at the mall.

The Christmas story, as usually told, fits well within this happy framework. The typical Nativity scene is awash with light and peace and contentment. The baby Jesus is spotless and duly swaddled. Mary and Joseph look beatific. As the carol goes, "All is calm, all is bright."

There's a problem here. Life, as we've learned once again in the Great Recession, is not always happy. In fact, relentless optimism and happiness omit half the human story. They ignore the darkness that everyone carries within themselves: the inner pain, the ruinous experiences, the heartbreaking losses -- and, especially since 2008, the unemployment, the foreclosures, the trips to the food pantry for people who never thought they'd need one.

We need a different Jesus for these times.

We can start with another -- perhaps more realistic -- look at the Nativity story. It would describe Jesus' birth in a pitch-dark cave, amid piles of oxen scat and filthy hay and poor travelers elbowing into the Holy Family's space, Joseph worn out from a frantic search for an inn, Mary all alone as her water breaks and her pain hits excruciating levels. Two anonymous unmarried people in a sea of humanity, living out an emergency. At the same time, a birth, a live baby in impossible circumstances, the unstoppable love of a mother.

This is more like the world I know: grossly imperfect, sometimes frantic and frightening, infused with surprising moments of grace. This is the world, according to Christian teaching, that God entered in the person of Jesus.

It also fits better with the rest of the gospel accounts. Jesus grows up to become an itinerant rabbi, living among prostitutes and tax collectors, wondering where he would sleep many nights, matching wits with authorities who wanted him dead. He rejoices in life and faith even as he lives among, and has compassion on, an assortment of the despised and dismissed. He is relentless in challenging those whose God was too small. This is the Jesus whom Christians encounter in this post-Christmas season, as they move from the happiness of the Holy Baby through the darker season of Lent.

This, to me, is even better news than the Nativity of light and peace. Through Jesus (again, according to Christian tradition), God has lived where I live -- two millennia ago, yes, but with many of the same human passions and motivations and imperfections. In short, God gets my world. Even better, God has become available to this world in its light and its darkness.

If Jesus embraced all of reality, so can we. We can embrace one another's light and dark, as the friends in my online group did. That enables us to take up St. Paul's admonition that is the hallmark of compassion and community: to "rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep."

Optimism and happiness are good things, to be sure. One of the towering strengths of the American character is its can-do spirit. Joy is a fundamental part of the faith story, including the Christian story. But we sell ourselves and our loved ones short if we insist on happiness to the exclusion of pain. God encompasses it all. We do well to do likewise.