Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas: God Pulls a Fast One

Have you ever noticed how people get absolutely goofy around babies? One small baby in a group of otherwise sane adults and something happens. The center of attention is immediately diverted from everything else and usually articulate, serious people are reduced to making odd faces, strange noises and fighting over who gets to hold the baby. There is something deep and primal that pulls people towards the vulnerability of an infant. Perhaps it is a sense of hope, maybe innocence or possibility contained in such a small and fragile package. Whatever it is about babies is clearly compelling.

So perhaps that is why God chose to enter into human reality as a baby. It is an unexpected message. All during Advent we had powerful readings with an apocalyptic sensibility: wake up! listen! God is coming! repent! The prophets speak of a radical new cosmic order. John the Baptist thunders out in the desert. It is clear that God is coming to turn the world upside down. But then what happens? Where is the thunder, the upheaval, our God coming from on high with power and might?

Instead, as the climax of all these readings we get a baby. A helpless baby born to an unwed mother, in an occupied country, laid in straw in a barn. Once we are (hopefully) prepared, listening, paying attention, God pulls a fast one on us. God doesn’t get us to pay attention by hitting us upside the head, God gets us to pay attention by appealing to our most basic, our best, our most human instincts. The divine comes into our lives as a baby. God comes in vulnerability.

What would it mean if we were to really pay attention to this unexpected message, if we were to treat the presence of God in the world as we would a baby? The message of Christmas is that Jesus was born into history, into time, but the message is also that the divine is being still being born into our world today. And the divine presence is still vulnerable, still fragile, in need of care and nurture.

Look at yourself in the mirror. Look at someone you know, someone you care about deeply, or someone you dislike. You, the person you love, the person you hate, each of you carries the image of God. Each of you were created in God’s image. Each of us carries the vulnerable presence of God in the world. Christmas says that God isn’t somewhere far away, detached, completely removed from human reality. Christmas says that God has come here in our midst and shares our reality. God has come into the depths of the human experience as an infant.

But today as on the first Christmas many of us will fail to recognize the divine presence in its unexpected package. Perhaps this is the source of so much suffering and evil in the world. We know that babies are deeply shaped and formed or malformed by how they are treated. Abuse, neglect, violence in formative years will create lifelong scars that will take years of hard work to heal. To fail to cherish and nurture a baby is to do violence to that new life. In the same way if we do no not recognize the vulnerable, fragile, divine spark that is the meaning of the incarnation, why do we wonder at the broken state of our world?

So today is Christmas but every day is Christmas. The message of that day 2000 years ago is that God shares our human nature. God became an infant. God continues to share our humanity and we continue to be made in God’s image. Here and now the incarnation means that God comes in vulnerability. For the world to be made anew the divine presence in each of us must be protected, nurtured, strengthened. The divine child is in our midst, how will we treat it?

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