Friday, December 26, 2008

The Invitation of the Christ Child

It’s the middle of the night and the baby is crying.

I am a new father and my mind is filled with ideal images of parenthood. I want very much to do the right thing, to share the obligations of parenting with my wife, to take my fair turn by responding to the need at hand, and so I throw back the covers, crawl out of bed in the darkness, and find my way across the room to the crib, all the while considering myself to be a good father, maybe even exceptional.

It’s somewhere around 3:00 o’clock in the morning. I am in graduate school....

....We are living in a small apartment in Connecticut. I have been up late studying already, and in a few hours I have a major exam to write. I am not particularly worried (at least not yet) because, I believe, babies cannot be that complicated. Right? After all the checklist is pretty minimal—a bottle, a clean diaper, a gentle rocking in the rocking chair, accompanied perhaps by some soothing, cooing kinds of sounds. In my estimation, the baby will soon be back in the crib sleeping contentedly, and I will be back in bed resting up for the day to come.

On this particular night, however, reality comes into play.

Bottle? Yes. Clean diaper? No problem. Rocking in the rocking chair? Check. Gentle cooing sounds whispered softly into the baby’s ear? You bet. There is, if I remember correctly, even some attempt at singing. The response? Well, how shall I say this, not optimal. Somehow in spite of my best efforts, our firstborn child, our oldest son, simply will not be satisfied. While I whisper quiet soothing sounds into his ear, he returns rather more audible sounds back into mine. And no amount of adjusting, re-wrapping of the blanket, or altering of positions makes any difference. This particular act of parenting, as is often the case with acts of parenting, just isn’t going according to plan. Even prayer does not seem to have any immediate effect.

As anyone who has spent any amount of time lying awake at night understands, that composted blend of anxiety and worry and silence and darkness when mixed together with a sense of fatigue and powerlessness is often the soil in which divine insight and wisdom grow. And this was my small but very real epiphany that night. Having exhausted all possible courses of action, I was no longer so confident in my parenting skills. Thinking about the exam that I would be taking in only a few short hours, I was becoming increasingly resentful. I was holding a treasure. I was cradling an absolute miracle in my arms to be sure. But the treasure was noisy, and the miracle was not cooperating with my desires.

“I do not know how to love this child,” I prayed with quiet frustration as we rocked together in the darkness.

“But you are,” came the response—not words, just awareness, as clear as day. It was not, I realized, a matter of how I was feeling, it was instead a matter of what I was doing.

That was it. The revelation—that love is not a feeling but an act of will, a deliberate choice that we make to use our knowledge, our skill, our time, our money, our heart, our bodies, whatever resources we have at our disposal, to give life to another, and in so doing, to give life to all.

There is nothing more important.

Tonight we celebrate the birth of another child, Jesus of Nazareth. The world into which he was born was not significantly different than ours. Imperialism, colonialism, political intrigue, tribal and ethnic rivalries, territorial disputes, military action and violence, gross economic disparity, the unequal distribution of precious resources, the deep social divisions of classism and racism, much of it sadly rationalized and justified in the name of religion, were all as much a part of the cultural and political landscape then as they are now. Suffering and loss accompanied by the desire and deep longing for something more transcendent described then as today (I am sure of it) the topography of the human heart. Jesus’ birth was no different than countless births before—the pain and precariousness of labor followed by a child’s gasping for air, a few precious tentative breaths, everybody beginning to relax for the moment, relief for the time being, but still no guarantees for the future. There was nothing exceptional here, and by in large, no one noticed.

But of this birth Luke says something startling—that angels sang, that the glory of God was revealed, that those who noticed (just a handful of shepherds really) came to see that earth and heaven were actually joined.[1] Of this child amazing claims, the fulfillment of ancient prophesies, would come to be made—that he would be called wonderful counselor, prince of peace, God with us.[2] Concerning this baby born in obscurity in the Judean countryside, John would say simply but pointedly that he was “the light”—“the true light, which enlightens everyone, [that] was coming into the world.”[3] They are amazing claims to be sure, but the biblical narrative is clear. Although it is just the story of a birth, the birth of a single human life, this life would be one in whom and through whom some would come to see the deepest reality of every human life—that every human life is, from the beginning and in every way, absolutely, completely, utterly divine. To paraphrase Iraneaus of Lyons, “The human being fully alive is the glory of God.”

The corruption, the poverty, the violence, the suffering, the evil of our world that we seem to consider inevitable, persists only because of our own denial and willful indifference to that divine vision. But the birth we celebrate tonight represents an amazing and grace-filled invitation to consider an alternative path—to see and to know ourselves and those around us for who we really are: the light of the world, the very image and likeness of the divine, instruments of peace, wonderful counselors, God with us. The birth of Jesus constitutes a call to open our eyes, to look deeply, to be amazed, and to respond accordingly in humility, wonder, and love. This night is not about sentimentality but about a renewed vision of life itself and about choosing wisely and courageously to use whatever we have, indeed all that we have, to claim that vision by giving life not just to a select few of our own choosing but to all.

It is the middle of the night to be sure. Even now our world is crying out. But guess what. However we may feel about it, the miracle has already been entrusted into our hands. The choice to love is ours.

[1] Luke 2:8-14
[2] Isaiah 9:6; 7:14
[3] John 1:9