A Christmas Meditation: The Vulnerability of God
“In the child Jesus, the defenselessness of God is apparent. God comes without weapons, because he does not wish to conquer from outside but desires to win and transform us from within. If anything can conquer man’s vainglory, his violence, his greed, it is the vulnerability of the child. God assumed this vulnerability in order to conquer us and lead us to himself.”
Joseph Ratzinger, Christmas Reflection, Ox and Ass at the Crib in Images of Hope: Meditations on Major Feasts
As I type these words one of my dearest friends, who is suffering from Covid 19, is in the ICU of a local hospital fighting for his life. He has been fighting Covid 19 for twenty days and he keeps getting worse. And now he is in grave danger of needing to be put on a ventilator. I sent him a text message a few hours ago and asked him how he was feeling. He sent back a one word reply: “Agony”.
In the era of Covid he is not allowed any visitors of any kind for any reason. And other than the nurses, doctors, and the beeping/whirring machinery of modern medicine, he is alone. His friends must stand by and wait with anxiety as we try and cobble together some idea of what is going on from the tiny scraps of news that we get from his sparse and often cryptic texts. But we do know one thing: he is in deep peril and at this moment there is little more that modern science can do for him beyond hooking him up to a machine that will further damage his lungs even as it saves his life, temporarily, by breathing for him. He is at this moment, quite literally, completely helpless and vulnerable, and none of the various measures he has taken in his life to make his existence more “secure” are of any use. He is “exposed” to the elementals of life like never before and stripped of the last illusions of “control”, as his entire life is now reduced to a few bits of data on a chart, in a tiny, windowless room, that smells like the color blue.
I chose the quote from Ratzinger above because of its emphasis upon the Incarnation as God becoming a part of this very regime of vulnerability. And not “vulnerability” as an abstraction, but the kind of real vulnerability my friend is experiencing along with millions of others. The eternal and infinite God has “become” a finite and timebound man. And I highlight the term “becomes” and avoid saying things like he “entered into” time, since the latter can still be viewed as something extraneous temporarily making a foray into a strange and foreign milieu. The scandal of the Incarnation isn’t that God took on our humanity like I “take on” a different shirt in the morning (on a good day) but that he “became” the man, Jesus. Nor did he become a man through some grandiose public display of power with magnificent circus pyrotechnics signaling his arrival onto the scene like a President who swoops into a disaster area in order to score political points. God became a man by first becoming one of the most vulnerable and dependent things that exists: a baby.
Saint Paul refers to the “humility” of God in becoming a human being and refers to it as a form of self-emptying “slavery”. And it is a form of slavery that will culminate in his death by crucifixion, which was often a common fate for rebellious slaves in ancient Rome. But we must avoid the temptation here to misread Paul’s words and to view the humility of the Incarnation as a denigration of the full dignity of our humanity, conjuring up as it does a faint whiff of the notion that God had to “swallow his dignity” in becoming human – – as if God’s dignity and our own are in competition to one another or in some kind of opposition. Indeed, the mere fact of the Incarnation is a shock, a scandal, and a devastating rejection of all such Gnostic systems of dualistic opposition between creation and God, insofar as it affirms that our nature is precisely made to be so taken up, in its totality, into the divine nature. We are not worms groveling before a pluripotent deity of heteronomous power who could crush us on a whim if he so desired. We are, rather, free spiritual beings with an immortal soul imprinted with the very image of God and made for communion with that God. We are indeed “mere creatures” and God is the infinite Creator. And there is a great ontological gulf between us. But it is God who has bridged the gulf and made our very alterity the foundation for our union: all love begins in distance and not identity. As Balthasar puts it: We are “like” God precisely in the fact that we are not God.
And so I choose to emphasize the humility of God in the Incarnation through the lens of vulnerability and not as some kind of “denigration” of God’s lofty State. Because what so shocked the ancient world about the Christian claim – – both among Jews and pagans – – wasn’t that God lacked the “power” to become incarnate, but that such a thing represented an unacceptable “compromising” of the divine eternity and immutability. Both Jews and pagans were very much accustomed to gods (God) who spoke to their seers, who took on an “alias” and walked among them for a bit, or who sent his emissaries to do his supernatural work. So what was shocking in the Christian claim wasn’t that God would deign to “come down” and cavort with his creatures in some theophany, but that God would “become” one of his creatures. Such a claim involved God too directly in the vulnerabilities of the human condition and in so doing “compromised” his very divinity. This is not Gnosticism, but it is nevertheless a view that plays in the sandbox of Plato’s “divided line” between the incommensurate and mutually antagonistic realms of spirit and matter.
Latent in such a view, sadly still very prevalent in our own day, is that God cannot “experience” what we experience without being involved in the realm of change and corruption. God must remain “above the fray” and can only “empathize” with our plight from a distance. He can indeed have “compassion and mercy” toward our vulnerabilities and can even “zap” a miracle from heaven and send it my way to prevent me from some danger, but God cannot become more interior to me than I am to myself. Furthermore, when all is said and done, God remains “out there” in a realm that is “away” from us when we cannot imagine God differently than as a generous, celestial, potentate. And even if we say that God was “in Jesus” this is often imagined, in a kind of magical, superhero manner, as being like Tony Stark’s “Ironman” suit with its nuclear powered heart running the whole artificial operation of wingless flight and stinging death rays. Or, as C.S Lewis points out, such a distant God often degenerates into a drooling benevolence, like a senile grandfather who dispenses coinage to the kids to buy ice cream.
Christmas is therefore a radically subversive festival. Born into a realm of violence, the Christ child is uniquely vulnerable from the get-go. His parents were already turned away from an Inn, which, when you meditate upon that, means that the Inn keeper turned away a pregnant woman who was clearly near-ready to give birth. And perhaps that is precisely why he turned them away in the first place signaling just how indifferent and cold the ancient world could be to women, children, and even men of low estate. And immediately following the birth of Jesus, Joseph must take his family and flee to Egypt as the murderous political regime flexes its imperial muscles and begins the indiscriminate slaughter of children in order to calm the neurotic tremors of Herod who imagined that his precious power might be in jeopardy. The years of quiet anonymity that then followed in Nazareth may appear to have been a period of relative safety for the young Jesus, but the political reality of that time meant that Roman-controlled Galilee was anything but a bucolic haven of Shire-like peace. The ubiquitous presence of the accoutrement of Roman control could not have escaped the notice of the young Jesus nor the vulnerabilities that such a presence created for the local villagers. The entire atmosphere was politically charged with an immovable Roman fist constantly in play to snuff out the revolts, insurrections, and grumblings of various Jewish groups given over to a politically radicalized theology. Therefore, when Jesus does finally enter into his public ministry he was well aware of how vulnerable he was, what a violent ordo he was entering into, and what the eventual consequences would be. His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane the night prior to his death gives us a searing insight into the fact that though his death was willingly accepted as part of his mission, it did not present itself to his psyche as something peaceful and secure: “Hey guys, sleep on… I got this. Remember that I am God so this is no big deal. See you on the other side…”
“Agony in the Garden.” It brings me back to my friend’s one word text: “agony”. When I look at the Christ child in the manger I do not imagine the little drummer boy and talking donkeys. I see instead a God who wishes to experience our agony from within. The silence of that manger in the cave takes my soul to the silence of that Garden and the silence of the tomb and the wordless pain of all who suffer alone. In the manger I see a God who is not play-acting at being a human being. I see a God who is about to experience a lifetime of vulnerability, pain and a horrific death. You might complain that I am not making enough proper theological distinctions between God “suffering in Jesus” and “God suffering in the Divine Nature as such”. Fine… your theological angina is duly noted. But those distinctions, though necessary, must never be allowed to mute, blunt, and render sterile, the very purpose behind the Incarnation in the first place. Theology is not Revelation. Christ is Revelation and theology is a second or third level meditation upon that primary fact – – the fact of the human Christ who suffers, dies, is buried, and rises again, and the God who is “implicated” in that same experience.
But why such an emphasis upon vulnerability? Because just as Dorothy Day teaches us that voluntary poverty creates a personal zone wherein we are then forced to live in what she called “precarity”, so too do all forms of vulnerability strip us of our illusions, lay us bare, and thus open us up to the most fundamental questions of our existence. And the sufferings associated with disease and death are the greatest forces for precarity that we will encounter. Indeed, many saints and mystics have pointed out that in the post-lapsarian regime of sin in which we live the manner in which we die is the greatest purgative of all. Thrown back upon ourselves with all of our various “props” taken away we are left with the raw and unbrokered encounter with that child in the manger whose death in vulnerability and precarity preceded my own in time and exceeds my own in orders of magnitude. The angels, the shepherds, the Magi, the animals … all rejoice at the birth of this child. A great King is born. But a King whose Kingdom will be made up of those who do not shrink from vulnerability, but who embrace its unique powers of divestment.
But this divestment of self is only possible when the hope of the resurrection is present as well. St. Paul makes this very clear: It is the resurrection that removes the “sting” of death thus robbing it of its power to drag us into despair. Therefore, the “vulnerability” of God in Christ is a conquered vulnerability. Nevertheless, in order to achieve a share in the resurrection we must all do as Christ did and first walk the path of the cross. Our vulnerability does not have the last word, but it does have the penultimate word. There is no Gnostic escape hatch wherein we can access the Divine milieu in an immediacy requiring no suffering or vulnerabilities. There is no “Gospel of wealth” backchannel passageway to a resurrection life that requires no antecedent sufferings. As I have said before: Deepak Chopra and Joel Osteen and Paula White all have perfect teeth. And they are all of the Antichrist. Resurrection comes only after the cross, even as the Hebrews only got to the promised land after a sojourn at Sinai.
On this Christmas I think of my friend. Alone and in agony. My prayer is that the God who made himself as vulnerable as a baby, and who died in agony, will take up residence in his anguished soul and guide him on his journey, wherever that may lead.