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God Became Helpless

Newborns

One of the most vivid memory I have of Titus’ birth was the moment the nurse placed our son in my wife’s arms. It was such a beautiful introduction. For nine months my wife’s body had been changing, adapting, and compensating for the new life that was growing in her womb. We knew our child was going to be a boy. We had his named picked out fairly early. We saw his image on an ultrasound screen. At times, we even felt him kick as if to say, “hello.” But, nothing compared to the moment he was embraced by his mother—the moment he was seen, known, touched, and held.

I remember how small and seemingly fragile he was. I was somewhat scared by it. I remember the doctor pulled him from the womb, flipped him around, and passed him off to the nurse who wiped his body clean faster than I could say, “hey, be careful!” There were several times throughout our stay at the hospital that our son was handled by some medical professional or another. I remember thinking to myself, “They seem much more comfortable handling this fragile child than I do…” Don’t get me wrong, I held our son and I loved it. But, I was paranoid about hurting his neck.

The stay at the hospital was pretty great. I mean, sleeping wasn’t the best, but it was much better after my mom brought my pillow from home. The food was alright. It was fun calling in room service. It was also really nice having people who seemed to know a lot about newborns at your beck and call. Going home is another story. Going home is simultaneously the most exciting and terrifying experience. At home, the nurse and experienced professionals are not a call-button away. Bringing a child home is the moment reality sets in.

What becomes evident very quickly is that this child is 100% dependent on you for everything. By that I mean, a newborn is particularly dependent on his or her mother for most things. I helped as best I could, but Emily breast fed Titus so… well, I was pretty much useless in that department. I became profoundly aware of how utterly helpless our child was. Newborns can’t even control their movements in any sort of coordinated fashion. Most of their muscles are hardly developed enough for them to do anything except lay there. He ate, slept, cried, and pooped. That is about it. Yet, I loved him with an indescribable love. I don’t mean to be dramatic about it. I just really can’t explain how much I loved him even though he was completely helpless and dependent on us for everything.

God became Helpless

            Have you ever really thought about the absurdity of the Nativity story? I know for some the Christmas story is basically as credible as Greek mythology. For me, I believe in the truth claims of Scripture. I am not talking about the absurdity of the transcendent and miraculous. I believe God became human. I believe God circumnavigated the natural processes of reproduction and supernaturally intervened so that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary. I believe Jesus was human. I also believe Jesus was Divine. He was fully God and fully human.

The reason for this mysterious beauty is our redemption. God was compelled by His love for us. Athanasius, an early church father who lived during the fourth century, poetically describes man’s predicament. Speaking of Adam and Eve he wrote, “But if they went astray and became vile, throwing away their birthright of beauty, then they would come under the natural law of death and live no longer in paradise, but, dying outside of it, continue in death and in corruption”[1] As we know, Adam and Eve went astray. Death and corruption is rampant in our world.

Scripture claims that God became human so that he could redeem humanity. As Athanasius wrote, “The Word of God came in His own Person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father, Who could recreate man made after the Image.”[2] Jesus emptied himself of his divine attributes and took on the form of a human. The Creator inhabited his creation. Jesus identified fully, completely and utterly with our humanity. In so doing, Jesus redeemed our humanity.

The how of our redemption is something we could theologize about for quite some time.  The atoning work of God in Christ Jesus is both beautiful and mysterious. I am not wanting to talk about those things as absurdities. I want to pause and talk about what theology calls the “incarnation.” The en-fleshing of the divine being. God, the creator of the Cosmos, became…

… a baby.

God’s plan for man’s redemption involved his ultimate humiliation. Why would God confine Himself to the form of a helpless child? I think sometimes we sanitize and sanctify the Christmas story. Jesus was born by the same means all humans are born. I’ll spare you the anatomical details, but Jesus’ birth was not somehow cleaner because he was God. Likewise, I think I used to think Jesus’ perfection meant he was somehow a perfectly mature, hybrid baby. The reality is that Jesus cried. Jesus needed to nurse at Mary’s breast. Jesus needed his soiled garments changed. Read that again. Jesus needed sustenance and care. God became a baby.

Baby vs. Emperor

For the Jews during Jesus’ day (and anyone in their right mind), the very idea of the Messiah being born a baby was ridiculous. I don’t know about you, but if I were going to launch a global mission to rescue the entire human race, I wouldn’t begin with a pregnant teenage girl. I mean, how can a helpless baby—who is not even “potty trained”—be the Deliverer of Israel?

Up against the competition Jesus didn’t look like he stood a chance. Augustus was the emperor of the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus birth. Augustus was the adopted heir of Julius Caesar and came to the throne after his murder. At the beginning of his reign the Empire was riddled with unrest and civil war. Under his leadership Rome’s enemies were defeated and the Pax Romana inaugurated. One writer says he was “Celebrated as a hero after the strife of civil war, Augustus was considered the great source of peace for Rome. After defeating the enemies of Rome, he was celebrated as a great ‘savior’ to the people who would have likely been hopeless had victory not been achieved.” [3] Augustus was also deified and worshipped as a god. “The poet Horace noted that while all previous deifications had occurred only after death, ‘upon you [Augustus], however, while still among us, we already bestow honors, set up altars to swear by in your name, and confess that nothing like you will arise hereafter or has ever arisen before now’ (Epistles 2.1.15-17)” [4] What could a baby have up against this powerful emperor hailed as a god and savior of Rome?

Power Upside Down

Philip Yancey wrote an extremely influential book in my life titled The Jesus I Never Knew. About the Christmas story he poses a very challenging question. He writes:

The facts of Christmas, rhymed in carols, recited by children in church plays, illustrated on cards, have become so familiar that it is easy to miss the message behind the facts. After reading the birth stories once more, I ask myself, If Jesus came to reveal God to us, then what do I learn about God from that first Christmas?[5]

What does Jesus coming as a baby teach us about God? There are at least two things I believe it teaches that are as counter-intuitive as the idea of a baby savior.

  1. Power in Humility

One thing I am convinced of is that humanity is prone to embracing power even if the means of that embrace compromises their values. We run for the higher ground. Without getting too controversial, I would dare to say that Christians are just as susceptible as unbelievers. The last several months I have witnessed Christ-followers sacrifice their moral values for the sake of securing political influence—for the sake of the upper-hand in the perceived “culture-wars.” It appears to me sometimes that some who claim Christ value self-preservation over loving their enemy, patriotic symbols over social justice, and political influence over a loving presence.

I don’t want things to get too dicey here, but let me simply ask, What does the Creator of the Cosmos entering into our human condition as a baby teach you about God? In contrast to the Roman Emperor who secured power by means of violence and fear and oppression, Jesus came as a baby in the most humble of circumstances. Humility has a power all to its own that no amount of money or political influence could afford. If your political views, social media presence, speech about immigrants and Muslims and the poor, heart towards the LGBTQ community, and attitude towards those who disagree with you does not emulate the humility of Christ our Savior, then something needs to be called into check. There, I said it. Sometimes we need to allow Jesus to meet us on his terms because when he does, he often calls us to love, forgive, extend grace, and embrace compassion in ways that are outside of our comfort zone. He wants to teach us that there is power in humility.

“Power, no matter how well-intentioned, tends to cause suffering. Love, being vulnerable, absorbs it. In a point of convergence on a hill called Calvery, God renounced one for the sake of the other.”[6]

  1. Messy Hands

There are a couple of standard things that people who know me well know about me. I hate nasty smells and I do not prefer being dirty. Marriage and parenting for Emily and I is a team effort—which means I have to help change diapers sometimes. Diapers are both smelly and dirty. However, the old adage is true: “It’s different when it’s your own kid…” Amazingly, I have changed countless diapers without vomiting due to the smell.

There was this one time though that tested my limits. We were on vacation with my parents eating at a restaurant. After eating our meal, Emily went to the restroom. Titus had made the “I’m pooping face” during our meal so I was on deck to change him. As I approached him in his high chair I noticed that he was massaging and squeezing something in his hands. I can guarantee you that whatever your imagination has conjured up, it falls short of reality. My son had poop all over his hands. After lifting him out of the chair, I realized it was… everywhere! I am not exaggerating for comedic effect. I am being quite literal. I went into a mental shock for a moment. It took my brain a few seconds to figure out what to do next.

I went to the men’s room with my poop covered son and proceeded to do something about the mess he had made. There was no changing table so I had to place him on the floor. He was crying this whole time by the way. I took off his clothes and rinsed them in the sink. Then, I took my son and placed him in the sink. It was that bad. Eventually, we got the poop cleaned off and I wiped the bathroom down as best I could… let’s just say I hope they sanitized everything… Anyway, the whole time Titus was crying it was almost as if he felt like he was in trouble—like I was mad at him. I kept saying, “Titus, it’s ok. Daddy loves you.”

I tell you that story because it is parenting moments like that which allow me to see a different perspective on God’s love. God coming in human form was God’s way of getting his hands dirty in order to clean up our mess. He entered into our humanity and all that it entailed. The Incarnation was God’s great condescension. Michael Frost puts this way, “…Jesus reveals his holiness not by the avoidance of humailation but by embracing it.”[7] Jesus doesn’t avoid our mess. He embraces it.

As a follower of Jesus, I too am challenged to reflect this Jesus to those around me. This means entering into people’s mess in order to show them God’s love. Loving people as Jesus loves—loving as God loves us—is a messy business because people are complex and their stories can be messy. Sometimes this means listening. Sometimes it means simply being present. Sometimes it means interceding in prayer on the behalf of others. Sometimes it means giving a voice to the unheard of our society. Sometimes it means setting aside judgment and offering grace. Here’s the thing: it looks different for each person because it is not some black and white formula. Loving as God loves means getting involved in the beautiful mess that is a person’s life.

What about you? What does it look like for you to follow this Jesus? What does it look like for you to emulate the sort of Christ-likeness that is willing to take on the most humble of forms to communicate love to others?

[1] Athanasius, and C. S. Lewis. On the incarnation: the treatise De incarnatione Verbi Dei. St. Vladimirs Seminary Press, 2002. (p. 29)

[2] Athanasius, and C. S. Lewis. On the incarnation: the treatise De incarnatione Verbi Dei. St. Vladimirs Seminary Press, 2002. (p. 41)

[5] Yancey, Philip. The Jesus I never knew. Zondervan, 2002. (p. 36)

[6] Yancey, Philip. The Jesus I never knew. Zondervan, 2002. (p. 205)

[7] Frost, Michael. The Road to Missional. Baker Books, 2011. (p. 88)

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