Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Life and Light, Laid in a Manger

A few years ago before coming to the monastery, I was walking the dog just before Christmas. I passed a neighbor emerging from her home and striding with purpose toward the warmth of her running car. In her arms, held tightly to her chest, was a bundle of blankets. Given the tenderness of the embrace and her determined gait, it was obvious the bundle—the swaddling clothes if you will—contained an infant, her grandchild.

After exchanging greetings and continuing on our way, it struck me—in a moment of depth that only the spirit of Advent can supply—how utterly helpless that child was, completely dependent on the care of others. This tiny boy could not do anything by or for himself. This child, without his even knowing, was being strengthened and nourished by the love of God and the care of others.

That in itself is amazing, as any parent can surely attest. However, what is infinitely more amazing is that the God who created us, who surpasses all knowledge and understanding, came to us through His mercy in such a small, helpless human form, that of Jesus.

How amazing that our Creator would entrust His very self to the care of a human mother and father, Mary and Joseph. God Himself became a helpless child, dependent on the care and love of the family of His own creation. Jesus, Son of the Living God, relied for much of His life on the protection and guidance and love of mere human beings.

In so doing, He provides us with a model of humility and faithful obedience, but also of surrender and trust. For if God would entrust himself to the care of human beings, should we not entrust ourselves to Him, who is infinitely better at such a task? Each one of us, through Christ, is that helpless child in the arms of God the Father. Whether we care to admit it or not, our existence depends solely on Him. Every beat of our hearts and every breath we take testify to that.

We belong to Him, and He cares for us, not just as a parent cares for a child, but as the Almighty Father cares for His creation. His love is perfect, far surpassing that which can be provided by any human being.

Yet, as we grow in body and spirit, we become more independent, more willful, more self-reliant, more self-absorbed, consumed with directing and controlling the events and people surrounding us. Whether we admit it or not, we become forgetful of our dependence on God, putting more trust in ourselves than we do in Him.

Human parents might grow angry at such insolence and ingratitude displayed by their children. But God our Father is patient. He’s seen it all before, billions of people throughout the course of time turning their eyes away from Him. Every single one of them. With one word, He could extinguish all for all time. Instead, He simply watches and waits for us to return to Him—and return we must, for we were created to live with Him forever.

So, with one word, He expressed his love, sending us the promise of Himself in the form of Jesus to give us everlasting life, to show us His patience in the flesh.

Here, the example of surrender is provided to us. As Jesus grew and taught, He was scorned and ridiculed. People plotted against Him. At times, especially in his darkest moment, He was abandoned. He was brutally beaten, endured carrying the very instrument of His death in the cross. He was nailed to it naked, completely humiliated and helpless for all to see.

In more intense agony than any one of us will ever endure because He bore not his own sin but that of all humanity for all time, God Himself was helpless, or so it seemed.

He felt the pain, the loneliness, the disappointment, the discouragement, the despair. Not one of our emotions or struggles is foreign to Him.

“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” He cried out from the cross, not due to a lack of faith, but because of ours. He was identifying with us, showing us He knows how we feel. All alone, crying for our God when we have no one else.

And then, just before He died, He looked up to heaven and said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

Once again at rest in His Father’s arms, He had surrendered all. So that we might know and remember this more fully, He provided an exclamation point. He was resurrected—a new divine life we share with Him in all of our humanity.

This was not only His gift to us, but His example for us. As we all grow and step away from the surrender of our infancy, life gets increasingly difficult, painful. We think at times we’re being punished. The truth is that each day and difficulty within it—small or large—is meant to steadily bring us back to the dependence of our childhood.

If we respond to this love, by the end of our days, we may be utterly broken in body, reduced to nothing, but restored in spirit, promised everything. The spirit within us that grew so independent over time returns to that sweet gentleness of a small child, having been humbled so we may return to our Heavenly Father. Once again, we are entrusted to his care, this time knowingly and willingly.

In that child long ago, He gave us His frail humanity so we may share in his everlasting divinity. And like a small child bundled up in warmth and held tightly by the arms of a loved one, utterly dependent but completely safe, we must say, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

Surrendering to the truth of this love, we have only to recall God’s word proclaimed through very human apostles and prophets:

“Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, with means God is with us” (Matthew 1:23; Isaiah 7:14).

“What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race” (John 1:3-4).

“And she wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger” (Luke 2:7).


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