Christmas comes by every year, and the familiarity with Jesus’ birth has an inoculating effect on the story’s beauty and mystery. Christmas stories range between inspirational and downright weird. Example: the other day I was at a church service during which angels started to the fly from the wings of the auditorium to the stage (via tight rope, of course). It was quite the shock. I sympathize with Rachel Held Evans on how disappointing it is that Christmas can so easily become about our “rights”—our right, our authority, to sing a song with Jesus’ name, to have a nativity scene in public, to say Merry CHRISTMAS emphatically to everyone.
The arrogance of the Christmas propaganda gets to me, and this Advent reflection by Henri Nouwen helped me articulate why: “God is where we are weak, vulnerable, small and dependent. God is where the poor are, the hungry, the handicapped, the mentally ill, the elderly, the powerless. How can we come to know God when our focus is elsewhere, on success, influence, and power? I increasingly believe that our faithfulness will depend on our willingness to go where there is brokenness, loneliness, and human need… I realize that the only way for us to stay well in the midst of the many ‘worlds’ is to stay close to the small, vulnerable child that lives in our hearts and in every other human being. Often we do not know that the Christ child is within us. When we discover him we can truly rejoice.”
In my life as a Christian, I have always thought that weakness and vulnerability have been states to conquer. I have faced this pressure, perhaps from myself, from the church, or in our culture, to arrive at some elusive point. To reach this sub-human state in which I can quote any Bible verse on command and be strangely excited at all times. I have been grasping for this supposed point of arrival, and it hasn’t come. I have lived my life waiting and never finding, hoping that after this therapy session, hearing this song, reading this book, saying this prayer… maybe the clouds would fade away and I would be free. I grow frustrated at God and ask, “Why? Why am I still dealing with all of this? Why won’t you answer my prayers?”
Henri Nouwen’s words have helped me refocus on the message of God giving up power and becoming vulnerable in the form of a person. What if there is not this single “point” of solace or arrival in this world? What if the good news of great joy is that God meets us where we are poor and weak? Maybe poverty, weakness, and vulnerability are not states that should be overcome over the course of the Christian life. Maybe these states are to be cultivated and nourished. Maybe powerlessness is the seed of hope that enables God to come and dwell.
It is hard to imagine God loving me and caressing me in my vulnerability and hurting. And yet, that is exactly what God came to do for the world. God heard the groans, the cries, of his hurting people. They must have filled rivers with their tears of oppression over hundreds of years and, at best, were clinging onto a sliver of hope for redemption. Christmas is the birth of hope, that death and suffering are not the final word. Christmas whispers that God is waiting in the darkness.
The anticipation—the agonizing waiting—is excruciating. I wanted to be healed yesterday. The process of hoping and waiting is tedious and long, and I beg for it to end. Similarly, Jesus did not come in the exact time that others wanted. He could have come the day after sin entered into the world. But he didn’t. God is a god of patience and grace. In contrast, I have my manic to-do lists, and if I don’t finish everything on that list in approximately 2 hours, I get stressed out. His timing and perspective on life are so different from mine.
All will be fulfilled in due time, but in the present, God has invited me to walk with him in all the crevices of life. I am thankful that it is in the crevices, rather than in my triumphant victory lap on a unicorn, that God reaches out his hand. Limping, wincing in pain, I take it.
It seems so absurd that God would want to love me in all my weakness, as Brennan Manning articulates in this awesome video. God loves me not as I will be, or as I should be, but as I am. I’m not this manic Proverbs 31-quoting, frenetic cookie-baker, superwoman Christian. Most likely, my old issues will swirl about and leave imprints and scars for the rest of my life. If my journey thus far is any indication of the future, I will be bedraggled and hurting, plagued with questions that need answers. Maybe God is not as set on me conquering my “issues” or “flesh” as I am. Maybe God loves me– even in all my complexity, inability to settle with superficiality, and the deep feelings that must be heard and understood. Could that be okay? Could there be something profoundly beautiful in accepting that?
More than that, it is this place of humble waiting, this patient vulnerability, where God wants me to meet others. It is so refreshing thinking that I don’t have to be above, or better than, others in order to meet them where they are. I love how this video shows the difference between empathy and sympathy. The message of Christmas shows that God is an empathetic God. God felt where his people were hurting, and he climbed down the ladder into the cave. Moreover, it is with that same sentiment that we are to descend into the lowly places to meet others. If even God is willing to go to the lowly places, shouldn’t I also go there as well? The process of encountering God in a state of wounded-ness is holy, but there is also something redemptive in doing that for someone else.
I find great hope that God will never tire of me saying, “Daddy, I’m scared, and I don’t know what to do.” I never have to worry that I’m not together enough. God can hold all of me because he is everlasting and powerful, and I am not too much for him. At the same time, he can truly understand what I feel because he has experienced what I have. He is in anguish about the same things that give me anguish. Jesus, too, wept.
Christmas is not a phase to get to the “punch line” (the death and resurrection of Jesus). Christmas is beautiful and holy in and of itself. Its passing every year has lessons to teach the world. It helps me understand and value the vulnerable child in my heart and spread that to others.
May Christ’s deep love and empathy envelope you this Christmas. May you find beauty in the Christmas story. May you rest in that today, tomorrow, and every other day of the year.