[Beliefnet, December 22, 1999]
* Selected for Best Christian Writing 2000 *
On a cold day in December a mother gave birth to a baby boy. Seventeen years later he sat in her kitchen with a towel around his neck while she trimmed his hair. When a boy reaches a certain age he doesn’t like his mother to touch him any more. This is as close as she’s likely to get, circling him, nipping behind his pink ears with scissors.
An hour earlier Nancy hadn’t known if he was alive or dead. He’d been arrested with a baggie full of drugs and swore he’d either flee to Mexico or kill himself. But on his trial date he came home one last time, to borrow his brother’s shoes and have his mom trim his hair. She circles him, sifting through his hair with measuring fingers, and dark broken wisps drift to her arms like jumbled dashes.
A couple of hours later he is in the back of a police car. They must leave for the state school immediately. The boy stares stonily ahead as his parents stand outside the car, leaning together like wind-battered trees. Say goodbye, the officer instructs. “I don’t know them,” the boy mutters. The car door slams and he is gone.
On a cold day in December a mother gave birth to a baby boy. Have you heard that story before?
Perhaps too many times before; it is so old, so worn, so overly familiar we can’t hear it anymore. It is blunt, irrelevant. At best, it’s merely cute. A friend told me about a Christmas display she saw at the mall: giant plush bears robed as Mary and Joseph, beaming at a swaddled Baby Jesus bear in the manger.
If there was once grand mystery around the Incarnation, it has long since dispersed. Three jolly bears now convey everything we know or expect to know. It is a scene is plump with stupidity. Jesus as a cookie. God as a pet.
This is very bad news.
For one thing, a circle of cuddly bears is useless at helping us deal with pain. It cannot help us grasp searing heartbreak; it cannot deflect the hard sharp reeling pain of a car door slamming and then taillights at the end of the road. We want a just-my-size God, fluffy and approachable, without all those picky commandments. But once we get him down to teddy-bear size we find that he is powerless. He is not able to ease our suffering or comprehend our dark confusions, he does not have strength equal to our grief. A reduced God is no God at all.
God cannot be less than us; he must be more. Our understanding is partial and dim, but we know at least that he is greater than us. We grasp for analogies: some people are artists, but God is the greatest artist. Some are wise, but he is wisdom itself. Most frequently, however, we say that God is love, because love is the best thing we know.
We’re more likely to say he loves like a parent than like a lover. Romantic love is dazzling, but parental love wins the prize for endurance. When we have seen heroic love, it has most likely been the love of a parent for a wandering child. Suffering parents love in the face of contempt, give despite ingratitude, keep vigil despite rejection. If fallible humans can sometimes do this, God must do it more.
On a cold, star-pierced night a girl gave birth in a stable. When she carried her baby into the Temple a few weeks later, an old man stopped her to say: “This child will be a sign that is spoken against. And a sword will pierce through your own soul, also.”
A hidden theme of the Christmas story is suffering parental love. We recognize and understand the love Nancy has for her son, the love the Virgin Mary has for hers, and stand in awe of what mothers are prepared to endure. But these loves are really reflections of a much vaster love, that of God the Father for all his wandering children. The greatest, most self-sacrificing earthly loves are comparatively fragile blooms sprouting from that underlying soil.
Maybe this crazy thing happened: God came down in a suit of skin and bones, and walked and talked, and offended people, and finally they tortured him to death. And by that death he destroyed death; he rescued us and gave life everlasting and every other good thing. Into this universe crammed with pain we say that God came down, because he loves us with the kind of love that we can only understand by thinking of how a parent loves.
He longs over us as over a lost and contemptuous child, a child at the edge of gaping danger, ignorant, sulky, and rude. We spurn, laugh, ignore him, pinch each other, boast “I don’t know him,” slam the door. And he waits. We ridicule him, trivialize his gifts, preen and bicker. And he waits.
Maybe none of this is true. Maybe a giant hand spun us into motion and then turned away. Maybe all the cruelty of a thousand bloody centuries will never be made right, because no one outside our globe cares. Maybe the raw material of visible life is all there is — a world bursting with stunning detail but meaningless, a glove meticulously made for no warm hand. The stars are far and cold.
Later that evening Nancy looked up at the stars and thought, he’s getting there about now. It’s hard to come to a new place in the dark; so many buildings lined up side by side with their windows black. She thought of him lying awake in a strange bed, wondering what lay ahead. She wondered if he was scared. She thought about her little boy.