By Fr. Ronald Rolheiser
Christmas cannot be taken for granted.
Swiss theologian, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, once wrote:
“After a mother has smiled for a long time at her child, the child will begin to smile back; she has awakened love in its heart, and in awakening love in its heart, she awakes recognition as well. … In the same way, God explains himself before us as love. Love radiates from God and instills the light of love in our hearts.”
That could be the caption inside a Christmas card. It expresses a spirituality of Christmas.
In the incarnation, at Christmas, God doesn’t enter the world as some superhero who arrives in great power and blows away all that’s bad, so that all we have to do is watch, enjoy the show, and feel smug as evil gets its due. The drama of the incarnation is not a movie to be watched but a real-life event within which we are meant to be players. Christmas doesn’t happen automatically, it needs our participation. Why?
Because God doesn’t enter the world like a Hollywood hero who rescues innocence and goodness at the last minute by a show of physical force. Indeed, at Christmas, God doesn’t even enter the world as an adult, but as a baby, helpless, needing to be nurtured to come to adulthood. The God who is born into our world at Christmas is not the God of power, but the God of helplessness and vulnerability.
But that has to be understood. There’s power by worldly standards and power by divine standards and a great paradox and irony is that divine power exhibits itself as vulnerability and helplessness, the power of the baby rather than that of the strong man. Ultimately though that power, helplessness and vulnerability, is the greatest power of all because it, and it alone, can transform hearts. You don’t soften hearts by overpowering them. You transform hearts through another kind of persuasion.
Christ doesn’t eradicate evil by overpowering it. Happy endings inside the kingdom of God work themselves out quite differently than in the movies, as we can see from Jesus’ refusal to come down off the cross to demonstrate his power. What Christmas brings into the world is the power of a baby which works not so much even through the power of innocence (beautiful as that is) but through the power of what scripture calls (in Greek) EXOUSIA. There isn’t an exact English equivalent for that word. It has connotations of a number of things all mixed together: transparency, vulnerability, defens elessness.
Julie Polter, one of the editors at Sojourners, describes it this way:
“The power of the universe became a babe in arms, not to teach us about the sweetness of love (although that is real too), but to teach us about its vulnerability and tangible expression and practical demands; and to teach us that on such as this, kingdoms are built. In a child, any child, the wealth and righteousness of a society, a nation, a world can be read. This isn’t fuzzy sentimentality; this is the law of the universe and the word of the prophets. … What are we waiting for? For the one who has come and comes again, the child who will lead us.”
We will be led into the messianic time, the prophets assure us, by a child. The Christ-child is that child. But, the power of Christmas is not automatic. It can’t be taken for granted. It has to be given birth, nursed, coaxed, and lovingly cajoled into effectiveness. The baby Jesus doesn’t save the world, the adult Christ does and our task is to turn the baby Jesus into the adult Christ. We need to do that in our own bodies and with our own lives. As Annie Dillard once put it, the Christ we find in our lives is always found as he was found at the first Christmas, a helpless infant, lying in the straw, someone who needs to be picked up and coaxed into adulthood. To make Christ effective, we need, ourselves, to become “the body of Christ”.
To put it metaphorically, the Christ-child has to be awakened by us. We need to go to the manger and awaken the child. How? It’s here that Von Baltasar’s comment is so insightful:
We awaken the child by inducing it to smile. How’s that done? Where is the Christ-child? In terms of an icon, the Christ-child is in the crib, but, in terms of spirituality, the Christ-child appears in our lives in a different way.
If Mary became pregnant by the Holy Spirit – defined as charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, longsuffering, fidelity, gentleness, and chastity – then obviously the child she gestated will radiate those qualities. We awaken the Christ-child when we smile at charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, longsuffering, fidelity, gentleness, and chastity until they begin to smile back. What comes back is the power of Christmas, a baby’s power to transform a heart, divine power hidden in human weakness.
We have to help make Christmas happen.