Christmas is God’s answer to human longing, God’s response to the centuries of prayers that lay hidden in our groaning, in our sighs, our frustrations, and our religious efforts, each of them a plea, mostly silent, for a divine intervention, all of them asking God to come and rid the world of injustice and our hearts of loneliness and heartache.
But God’s answer didn’t exactly meet our expectations even as it surpassed them. What was born with Jesus’ birth and what still lies seemingly helpless in mangers all around the world wasn’t exactly what the world expected.
What the world expected was a superstar, someone with the talent, sharpness, and raw muscle-power to out-gun everything that’s bad on this planet, someone charismatic enough to make everyone who opposes him slink away in defeat. God’s answer to that: A baby lying helpless in the straw!
Why would God choose to be born into the world in this way?
Because you can’t argue with a baby! Babies don’t try to compete, don’t stand up to you, don’t try to best you in an argument, and don’t try to impress you with their answers. Indeed, they can’t speak at all. You, on your part, have to coax everything out of them, be it a smile or a word, and that effort, which demands great patience, usually draws out what’s best in you. Moreover, you can’t push at a baby too hard, it will begin to cry and the session is over.
And that is the Savior who was born in Bethlehem, and that is how God is still basically in the world. Like a baby. God does not outgun anyone, out-muscle anyone, threaten anyone, or overpower anyone. The power of God revealed in Christmas is the power of a baby, nothing more, nothing less: innocence, gentleness, helplessness, a vulnerability that can soften hearts, invite in, have us hush our voices, teach us patience, and call forth what’s best in us. We watch our language around a baby in the same way as we watch our language in a church, with good reason.
The power of Christmas is like the power of a baby, it underwhelms in such a way as to eventually overwhelm. There is a greater power than muscle, speed, charism, unstoppable force: if you were to put a baby into a room with the heavy-weight boxing champion of the world, who ultimately would be the stronger? The boxer could kill the baby, but, no doubt, wouldn’t, precisely because something inside the baby’s powerlessness would overwhelm the boxer. Such is the way of God, the message of Christmas.
But we have always been slow to understand this. We want our messiahs to possess more immediate power. And we are in good company here. The messiah that people longed for during all those centuries leading up to Jesus and Bethlehem was precisely conceived as a human superhero, someone with the earthly muscle to bang heads together and purge the world of evil by morally superior muscles.
Even John the Baptist expected the messiah to come with that kind of power. His concern was justice, repentance, asceticism. He warned people of an approaching time of reckoning and expected the longed-for messiah to come precisely as a violent fire, a winnowing fan that would separate the bad from the good and burn up the former with a righteousness that came straight from God.
When he heard reports of Jesus gently inviting sinners in rather than casting them off, John was scandalized. That kind of a messiah didn’t fit his expectations, or his preaching. That’s why Jesus, in sending a response to him, invited John not to be scandalized in him. John hadn’t wanted a gentle, vulnerable, peace-preaching messiah. He wanted bad people punished, not converted. But, to his credit, once he saw how Jesus’ power worked, he understood, accepted a deeper truth, stepped back in self-effacement, and pointed people in Jesus’ direction with the words: He must increase and I must decrease. I’m not even worthy to untie his scandal strap!
We too are slow to understand. Like John the Baptist, our impatience for truth and justice makes us want and expect a messiah who comes in earthly terms, all talent and muscle, banging heads together so as to rid the planet of falsehood and evil. We want the kind of messiah we see at the end of every Hollywood thriller: Mother Theresa turned into Sylvester Stallone or Bruce Willis as I write this, beating up the bad guys with a violence they can only envy.
But that’s not the Christmas story, nor the power revealed in it. An infant lying in the straw in Bethlehem didn’t outgun anyone. He just lay there, waiting for anyone good or bad to come to him, see his helplessness, feel a tug at his or her heart strings, and then gently try to coax a smile or a word out of him.
That’s still how God meets us.