From Jesus Wept
I see a wonderful kind of love!
Thy Highness lieth in the straw:
the hands that made the world
make tiny gestures in a Mother’s arms:
the eternal Wisdom, of his own will,
is powerless to speak, to think.
Whoso is wise will ponder these things
and understand the loving kindness of the Lord.
(My Lord’s Love, by Eric Milner-White)
A Condescending God
There are few more powerful images of vulnerability than a new-born baby; and the child’s defenselessness and utter dependence on those who care for him are heightened when the circumstances into which he is born are, in themselves, vulnerable. Such an image can still have an impact even on our dulled consciousness when we recognize that it may be happening only a few miles away in our local community. Yet sometimes we become numb, and fail to acknowledge the reality of many of the births which have taken place and which still take place in our world without warmth, security, and medical support but, rather, exposed and lonely and vulnerable.
The comfortable images on Christmas cards, in Victorian carols, in the infant-school nativity play – even in the neatly crafted Christmas crib – depict a birth far different from that which took place in the stable of Bethlehem. This was not a comfortable birth: to be born amongst a people under oppressive rule, in particularly difficult circumstances, temporarily homeless, and to a young first-time mother, as yet unmarried to the man who was not even the father of her child, wasn’t exactly the ideal point of entry into the world. And yet this was the way God chose.
The story of Jesus’s birth, as it is recorded in the gospels, is a strange mixture of the amazing and the ordinary. Saint Luke, in particular, combines the wonder and enormity of this event of cosmic significance with the down-to-Earth reality of the circumstances into which Jesus Christ was born. For the social and physical contexts of Jesus’s birth express a vulnerability, poverty, and insignificance strangely at odds with the angels’ words of acclamation to the shepherds:
To you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. (Luke 2:11-12)
A Savior. The Messiah. The Lord, whose arrival is announced by a multitude of the Heavenly host; a king whose coming has been foretold, expected and anticipated by thousands, and yet who, when born, is wrapped in bands of cloth, laid in an animal’s trough, in a back-street cave in an insignificant town on the edge of the Roman Empire. Here is no special protection or immunity. Here God is enfleshed in the weakness of a vulnerable child. The world may have been waiting for a king. The king who came was poor and weak, and went unrecognized except by those to whom the Spirit made him known: Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the wise men, Simeon and Anna. They saw through the weakness and vulnerability of the child to the revelation and glory and majesty of the condescending God.
The paradox of this “divine condescension” lies at the heart of the incarnation. How could God become a vulnerable human being and still be God? And if he was still God, then was he really human? How could the humanness of Jesus Christ be the same as yours and mine?
To be more specific: if Jesus Christ came in the flesh (as the gospels tell us he did), as a vulnerable, human child, was he really vulnerable – the same as any new-born baby – or only pretending to be? Was his vulnerability the same as ours? Or did he have some extra layer of protection – some sort of “divine bubblewrap” – because he was God, and God could not afford anything disastrous to happen to this particular baby? If he was specially protected, then surely his humanity was not the same as ours. We are not encased in “divine bubblewrap”! What use is he as a model for our vulnerability, and how can we identify with him, if he was somehow different from us? Equally, if Jesus really was just the same as you and me, then how can we say he was God made flesh? He may well have experienced, identified with, and shared in the frailty and weakness of vulnerable humanity, but how could he then, at the same time, have been the perfect instrument of that same humanity’s salvation?
These are enormous questions which have exercised the minds of inquiring people through the centuries. But why do they matter? They matter because if it is Christ who must be our “starting point” for exploring the way of vulnerability, then we have to be sure that he is someone with whom we can identify, someone whose vulnerability is real, and (more importantly, perhaps) someone who can identify with us in our vulnerability. It is not good gazing at Christ through bubblewrap: we have to be sure that he felt the nail and the lance, the ridicule, and the abuse. Only then can we begin to entrust ourselves to him in our vulnerability.
As we begin to look at this “condescending God” more closely, we recognize that of ourselves we cannot make ourselves like him. To assume that we could would be arrogant blindness! We cannot “imitate him” in the sense of copying him or matching up to him. We can only, by his grace, be imitators of him in a dynamic way, as, enabled by the Spirit, we offer ourselves continually as channels of the Father’s love to the world. It is he who makes us like himself – and not we ourselves! Jesus Christ was born as a vulnerable baby at Bethlehem, and lived a fully human life, yet without sin. Whatever the strength of our love, and however Spirit-inspired we may be, our motives are always mixed and impure, and we are always susceptible to sin. Only the Son of God was motivated by pure love and service of his Father and of humanity. And for Jesus Christ, to be vulnerable was an expression of a love which would lead to death.