December 25, 2016
“She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger,
because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Lk 2:7)
Our chaplain never tires of reminding us of the uncomfortable and unsanitary conditions under which Christ was born. The gospel tells of a dangerous journey made under compulsion of political powers, made under conditions of physical vulnerability, with a lack of bare necessities. There was nowhere to lay one’s head, never mind a newborn infant.
I am reminded of a scene from the film The Nativity Story, in which Joseph, carrying Mary in his arms as she groans in pain, whirls around, desperately looking for somewhere, anywhere that he can take her to bear her child. Joseph’s helplessness and near-panic is palpable. Mary prays, “Will you not provide for us?” and at that moment Joseph catches sight of a nearby cave, which is being used as a stable.
A scene from another film comes to mind – this time Children of Men, which tells of a future world in which global infertility has broken the nerve of humanity, and all is violence, self-destruction and decay. Theo must smuggle a young African woman who is pregnant out of the country, by way of a refugee camp. The camp is a place of brutality and misery, and under the worst imaginable circumstances, the birth is suddenly imminent. There is danger on every side, a decaying building, a room with a cement floor containing only a soiled mattress. Theo removes his coat, so that the inside of it may provide some semblance of a clean place for the woman to bear her child.
Is there a purpose in such meditations? In wiping away the sentimental haze of Christmas cards and carols and putting ourselves face to face with a scene that disturbs us? I have the sense that few things horrify the affluent modern American more than unsanitary conditions. But perhaps the deeper horror is really poverty, helplessness and vulnerability.
What then is the meaning of our carols and crèches?
The earth-shattering revelation of God’s vulnerability.
Christmas celebrates the God who chose to be born in unsanitary conditions, in danger and want, in absolute vulnerability.
Who would choose to be poor, to be in want, to be unsafe and unclean, helpless and vulnerable? God.
And why? Because love bade him draw near to his creatures.
In that impromptu shelter was born love and hope and trust – all that was lacking in a world that had lost its ability to bear children, to bring to birth new life.
Human solidarity can only flow from this birth of hope in the human heart. Solidarity is what we call that attempt by those of us who have always lived comfortably to connect ourselves – intellectually, emotionally and spiritually – with those whose circumstances of terror and deprivation are scarcely imaginable to us. We can fool ourselves that we know, that we understand, that we touch these people in their suffering. What do we know? Only that we abhor vulnerability and run from it.
Yet God chose solidarity with us through absolute vulnerability. Some people have no choice but to be vulnerable: the child in the womb, the infant, those with mental and physical disabilities, the aged and infirm, the transgender prostitute living on the street in Jamaica. God is with them. God is for them. That is the message of the angels. That is the message for us too, if we can dare to let ourselves be vulnerable. This is a hard choice for the scarred and wounded who like to hide behind barriers. To be in solidarity is to allow oneself to be vulnerable, in spite of the fear and still-smarting wounds. To choose vulnerability is to choose hope, and to sow this seed in the great manure pile of the world.
“Eden now lies sleeping in a stall.”
(MSM Abbey hymn for Christmas Vigils)