“And the word became flesh and lived among us…. Amen”
The Gospel has held special meaning for me this Christmas. Exactly a month ago, I held our first grandchild, barely a day old. Watching this newborn who was awake but resting comfortably in the midst of new voices and arms, I began to reflect on the mystery of the Incarnation: the Word—God’s purpose or intent—becoming flesh and blood, and the vulnerability of the divine in the midst of humanity.
Vulnerability is often thought of in terms of weakness. “Never show your vulnerability” is an all too common saying. But vulnerability also entails trust and risk-–risk of disappointment, betrayal; risk of joy or success, perhaps beyond one’s wildest dreams.
Advent became a time to reflect on the vulnerability of God, in revealing God’s self to humanity and participating in the human condition. In the Hebrew scriptures, God had camped among the Israelites, in the cloud over the tabernacle, during their long exodus journey out of Egypt. (1) In Christ, God takes the further risk of incarnation. Pope Francis has spoken of the “’vulnerability’ embraced by God in choosing to become a poor human being in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.” (2)
Too often we tend to think of God as invulnerable; perhaps distant, uninvolved, as a harsh, unforgiving judge, or simply One to be feared. Someone coming back to church, after many years, spoke of having attended a Sunday school as a child where they were taught that they must fear God, literally, as a condition of faith. He walked away as soon as he could. He was open to belief in God, but not to be ruled by fear. Over-emphasizing the invulnerabiity of God has kept people from seeking intimate spiritual relationship. How could God possibly understand what they-—or we—are going through? A parish rector I knew used to tell a joke to illustrate that very point. It went something like this:
The sound system of a parish was being repaired. The church was open during the day, and a woman was deep in prayer. One of the workers got the bright idea to test the system, and announced in a low, booming voice, “This is God!” When he got no response, he tried again, “Do you hear me, this is God!” The woman looked up, startled, then replied, “Be quiet; I’m talking to your Son.”
Indeed, pastorally, many people have found Jesus, as a manifestation of the divine, more approachable, and more able to relate to.
St. Augustine believed that the balance point between God and humanity was in God’s humility (or vulnerability) by residing in the humanity of Christ.(3) it also has been the humanity of Christ that has helped Christianity to grow into a world religion. As a Korean seminary student once explained, Jesus’ experience of marginalization, suffering, and rejection—his very vulnerability—had allowed Koreans as a people, who had been colonized and conquered many times, to identify with Christ in a way that no other new religion had offered. For many, Jesus has become the locus where the vulnerability of God meets us in our own vulnerability. However, it’s important not to compartmentalize or limit our understanding of God in the process.
This is the first of three important gifts that the vulnerability of God holds for us this Christmas morning: spiritual intimacy. God’s entering the world through Jesus Christ, by living and experiencing the human condition—from joy and deep friendship to rejection and death—gives us a concrete guide as we seek to live out of our faith.
The second gift of God’s vulnerability is deepened compassion. In this morning’s passage from Isaiah, we hear an ancient and familiar understanding of God as a triumphal warrior coming to restore Israel to its former glory. Israel was a conquered and suffering people in exile, with their sacred city Jerusalem in ruins. This was the popular expectation of Messianic salvation. But if we listen closely, there is something else in this passage. Besides this triumphal feeling, we also hear of God’s consolation and comfort to the people. This requires compassion—stepping aside from triumphalism and standing with those who suffer. The vulnerability of God is to suffer with humanity through the most trying circumstances. This awareness of God suffering alongside us becomes integral to redemption and restoration—and ultimately to salvation.
After the Holocaust during World War II, Eugene Borowitz, Elie Wiesel and other Jewish theologians and scholars sought to understand God in a fresh way. Much of popular understanding had been built on a triumphalist perspective of God, which is summarized well in the Isaiah passage. But how could an all-powerful God let a holocaust happen, especially to a people with whom God had a covenantal relationship? There began to be conversations about the brokenness of God, and vulnerability, which required Divine power to be interpreted and understood differently.
By giving humanity free will and autonomy, God cannot fix the catastrophes we create. But God is in the midst of the ruin. God weeps with us. Rabbi Borowitz has spoken powerfully of a God who is “with us”, a God who does not giving up on us, even when we turn our backs; a God who risks rejection but remains there for reconciliation. (4) In Christian tradition, Divine compassion has most often been understood as love.
The third gift of God’s vulnerability is interdependence. This is a tough gift for many of us in our culture of individualism and autonomy. Interdependence limits us. It calls on us to be accountable for the choices we make. In East African cultures there is a traditional saying —“I am because we are, and we are because I am.” (5) We come to know ourselves through being part of a greater whole, such as a family or community; just as the community has its distinct identity and integrity only because of the persons who make it up, and help with its nurture and needs. In the words of Michael Battle, a scholar of ubuntu and African worldviews, “a person depends on other persons to be a person.” (6)
When I was part of a program with a number of African graduate students, many were puzzled by an American preoccupation with personal time to do things alone or independently. Recently, a priest who had spent many years in Tanzania and I visited a Starbucks in another university town. He remarked on the chairs and tables that were all turned away from each other, facing toward the window or the wall. They were filled with individuals silently working on laptops, tablets, or reading a book. “Why do they come together to be alone?” He asked.
The Divine act of creating entails vulnerability and risk, in the hope that we will respond and not turn away. Even the Incarnation was a tremendous risk: Would Jesus respond by seeking a loving, interdependent relationship with God, or simply walk away rejecting god? Fully human, Jesus had free will. God, as any parent, had no guarantees. And, how do we respond to God’s call to relationship?
God, the divine source of all creation, wants relationship with us. God depends on humanity to carry out the intention of reconciliation through spiritual connectedness and compassion, as the body of Christ in the world. God needs us just as we need God, to keep us spiritually centered and aware that we have a purpose beyond our own amusement or survival. That is the logos, or the Word. As Christians, these three gifts—spiritual intimacy, deepened compassion, and interdependence—are manifested in Christ. We are Christ’s body in the world.
1 Robert Kysar: John. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986, p.32; George A.F. Knight, “The Light of God in Action.” http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=36.
2 “Francis accents ‘vulnerability’ of God,” John L. Allen Jr., Dec. 24, 2013 http://ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/francis-accents-vulnerability-god.
3 Augustine, Confessions VII.18, cited in “Incarnation,” Brian Hebblethwaite, in The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, Gordon S. Wakefield ed., Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1983, p. 210.
4 Course notes, Eugene Borowitz, “Contemporary Jewish Ethics,” Harvard Divinity School, Spring 1983.
5 For an insightful discussion, see Michael Battle, Ubuntu: I in You and You in Me. New York: Seabury Books 2009.
6 Michael Battle, Ubuntu, p.3.