When God Is a Child: A Christmas Meditation

Anyone who has ever been under the influence of what neuroscientists call "the parental instinct" knows that there is no power in the world like the power of human nature in its purest, neediest, most undistorted, most unfiltered and most vulnerable form: a baby. That classic text by hymn writer Brian Wren says what I mean: When God is a child, there's joy in our song. The last shall be first and the weak shall be strong, and none shall be afraid.

The Christmas story comes to life through a baby who needed milk and love and yet who was God (to paraphrase poet Denise Levertov). For those of us who celebrate Christmas, the best gift to both give and receive is that God became small enough for us to wrap our arms around, showing us that divine love is not afraid of weakness and dependence. Another poet, John Donne, helps express the bestirring beauty of such vulnerable love when he says about Mary: Immensity is cloistered in thy deare womb!

God's immensity takes up residence in what is vulnerable and needy; helpless and small; human and holy. It is a risky "spirituality of descent" that Christians call incarnation, which is at the heart of Christmas.

Jesus born in a manger tells the truth about God's vulnerable love that is willing to stoop to any level to be with us. Divinity woos humanity into the way of love, and it starts with the coos of God from a makeshift cradle made from a cow trough. The baby Jesus is God's way of showing the world that divinity is willing to get down and dirty to be right where we human beings live in our own kind of birth story, which takes place in the weal and woe of both light and dark; joy and sorrow; the good and the bad; the magical and the mundane; the naughty and nice; the human and the divine.

This Christmas, as I contemplate the wonder of God becoming a child again in the birth of Jesus, I contemplate equally as much the bewildering paradox of how this vulnerable God is actively at work in this violent world. A G-rated version of Christ being born into the world (or St. Luke's version, even, adorned with angels announcing peace and goodwill on earth and singing in a mass choir) seems not adequate enough to match the incalculable suffering and violence being wielded the world over.

Even as I imagine God being present for the first breath being taken in the life of Jesus, I imagine God being present for the last breath being taken in the life of Aylan Kurdi. I can't stop thinking about the heart crushing and disturbing photograph of Aylan, the 3-year-old Syrian boy found drowned earlier this year on a Turkish beach. Aylan, still dressed in an outfit I often put on my own 4-year-old son, (a red T-shirt, blue shorts and Velcro sneakers) lost his life as his family tried to escape the violence and repression at home in Syria.

As St. Matthew tells the Christmas story, Jesus was the son of a refugee family, too. Jesus was born in the time of King Herod, who was on a violent search-and-destroy mission to eliminate any threats to his power, even when the threat happened to be people as innocent as Joseph, Mary and their baby boy. In response, Joseph took Jesus and his mother Mary to Egypt to escape the violence of King Herod, who then became the architect of the Bethlehem Massacre (ordering the killing of all children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and younger). Herod had learned the tricks of his tirade from the ancient Pharaoh, who had likewise ordered the killing of the male infants of his Jewish slaves.

The infant Moses, according to the Hebrew Bible, survived Pharaoh's fury and ultimately led the family of Israelites out of Egypt. Matthew's Gospel tells of Jesus and his family crossing over the border into Egypt. The part of the Christmas story we often miss is that Joseph and Mary seeking shelter in Bethlehem to get Jesus born becomes seeking shelter in Egypt to keep him alive.

Here we have the first-century, non-Shutterfly version of Christmas as Matthew intended it, which is the way much of the world will experience Christmas this year. The wisdom of Christmas is that God becoming a child reveals ultimately that God is vulnerable, not violent. Unlike King Herod, the Jesus story of God unwraps the holy mystery of a divine love so immense that it uses the means of weakness and dependence to disarm the love of overwhelming power by the power of vulnerable love. This is what happens when God is a child.

God's universal gift to the world at Christmas is the power of vulnerable love. It is full of promise and peril -- as any great love is. It is full of rapture and risk -- as any great love is. It is full of holiness and humanness -- as any great love is.

In the flesh and face of Jesus, which is to say, through our own faces and our own flesh, the child born of Mary is being born again among us. And, if singing is "praying twice," as St. Augustine once wrote, let these words fall from your lips down in to your heart: When God is a child, there's joy in our song. The last shall be first and the weak shall be strong, and none shall be afraid.