Solemnity of the Nativity of our Lord
Instead of singing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus on Christmas, Chris Rice croons “Welcome to our World” (listen to it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QrgwL5r7IcU). The song begins: “Tears are falling, hearts are breaking / How we need to hear from God / You’ve been promised, we’ve been waiting / Welcome, Holy Child / Welcome, Holy Child.”
This earworm of a carol has been burrowing itself deeper and deeper into my brain this holiday season, and unlike other Christmas lullabies, it has actually kept me awake at night. “You’ve been promised, we’ve been waiting….” But have I really been waiting for God? Or have I been waiting more for the gifts I have been dropping hints to get? Have I been waiting more for the few days of rest that come after December 25? What have I been really waiting for? What is it that I really need?
The song continues: “Hope that You don’t mind our manger / How I wish we could have known / But long-awaited Holy Stranger / Make Yourself at home / Please make Yourself at home.” But I did know Christ was coming. The four weeks of Advent were all about preparing for Jesus’ birth. Still, I find myself unready, unsteady. The stable of my heart is the farthest thing from being stable, constant, and faithful, and I am not really sure how to fix it. But like the gracious guest who, though announced, finds the host scrambling to get everything in order, the God who is Emmanuel settles in and tells us: “You don’t have to sweep the dirt under the rug or hide the embarrassing junk in the closet. The reason I have come is you. If it is a messy you that I find, then I will enter your messiness and help you straighten up the mess. I only ask that you make room for me – even if it is only a manger. In you, I will make my home.” This is why Chris Rice is encouraged to invite this God deeper into himself: “Bring Your peace into our violence / Bid our hungry souls be filled / Word now breaking Heaven’s silence / Welcome to our world.”
But what I cannot figure out in the song, and in the great mystery that is Christmas, is in the next few lines: “Fragile finger sent to heal us / Tender brow prepared for thorn / Tiny heart whose blood will save us / Unto us is born, unto us is born.” Why did Jesus come as fragility, as tenderness, as a tiny baby? Would not the world’s woes be better addressed with imperviousness and toughness – perhaps by a mighty warrior or a powerful king leading a formidable army? Why did God come in weakness?
Would it not have been more efficient if God just came swooping down like a great big ball of fire from heaven to burn away all that is evil in us and purify us from all sin? But maybe Christmas is not about efficiency or immediate results. Maybe Christmas is more like a parent patiently explaining math problems to a child. The parent knows the answer. It will be faster if the parent just did the child’s homework. But what would that teach the child? And so the parent takes on how the child must be thinking to slowly guide the child to the answer. And in the long hours spent in trial and error, the parent and the child bond in ways mathematics will never be able to sum up in a formula. Maybe Christmas is like that.
Why did God come in weakness? I remember my catechism teacher challenging us with a Christmas question many, many years ago: “How many kings are in the nativity scene?” We looked at the belen in our classroom and chorused, “Three!” But she said, “No. There are four: One king brings gold. Another king, frankincense. A third, myrrh. And the fourth King comes bringing us life.” If we were older, that would have struck us as profound. But we were seven, and we were smart alecks, and so we said, “But you’re talking about a baby in a manger. Shouldn’t a king be on a throne?”
The weakness God embraced did not end in the hay in the manger. It continued on the wood of the cross where, on the last Sunday before Advent, we crowned Him with thorns and proclaimed Him “Christ the King.” On the cross, that scandal of a throne, the leaders of the people sneered at Jesus. The soldiers jeered at Him. His followers veered as far away from Him as they could. But a thief crucified beside Him looked at Him and said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” This is the only time in the Gospel of Luke when someone addresses Jesus by His name without any title attached to it. Jesus’ disciples called Him Master, Teacher, and Lord. This thief simply called Him Jesus. Why was the thief so “familiar” with Jesus? I think it was not familiarity; it was intimacy. And the intimacy came from the experience of being crucified together, suffering together, and being weak together. Maybe this is why God enters our weakness: To be more intimate with us. As a hospital chaplain some years ago, I learned that sickness can either make you feel bitter or feel much, much closer to God. What decides which road you take is whether you awaken to the truth that God is with you in your pain, your sorrow, and even your death. Maybe this is the message of Christmas.
There is a trite description of what falling in love does – it makes you feel weak in the knees. In this cliché is a profound truth: Love makes you weak. Love demands weakness. Love is not love without vulnerability. And maybe God comes in weakness because He desires our love. Attraction to someone in power or someone rich can be motivated by selfish interests. But being drawn to someone weak can only be love. Maybe Christmas is God not just professing His love for us but also asking us to love Him.
Chris Rice ends his love song to God: “So wrap our injured flesh around You / Breathe our air and walk our sod / Rob our sins and make us holy / Perfect Son of God / Welcome to our world.” We who want to love God, what should we do? As God welcomed weakness, so should we. We wrap ourselves with the injured, we breathe the air of the poor, we walk their sod. This Christmas, and throughout the New Year, let us welcome weakness into our world. When we stand with those whose tears are falling, whose hearts are breaking – as Chris Rice’s song began – we will be more in touch with our need for God. And then we will discover what true strength really is.