This essay was first published in the December 19, 2011 issue of America magazine.
When I was a child, the stories of Jesus’ birth captured my imagination. But as a young man growing up in the Catholic faith, the Christmas mystery was mostly lost on me. As I grew, the Nativity story seemed fixed in centuries long past and spoke to realities that I assumed were long gone from the face of the earth. When I began studying theology, I learned to categorize the infancy narratives as myths, imaginative stories written to convey hidden truths but easily dismissed by the intellect. The Incarnation, God’s love poured out “in the flesh” of Jesus, remained an abstraction, a doctrine that needed to be understood and explained, certainly, but hardly something one would live.
It was not until I became a father that the mystery of Christmas began to come alive in my heart. With the births of two children and the loss of two by miscarriage, the drama of “love becoming flesh” suddenly became real to me. I began to hear the Nativity stories through the ears of my heart, as it were, and to see through the eyes of my imagination. The Incarnation became less important as a doctrine than as a lifeline I could grab onto with both hands: God’s palpable nearness in the fleshly stuff of an ordinary day. Today the birth narratives disturb and haunt me in their capacity to speak to a world that labors “in great darkness,” to the hearts of a people grown weary with disappointment and scandal. The Nativity sustains me in hope and expectation.
A Child Is Found
Two years ago my wife Lauri and I adopted two children from Haiti. Our adopted son, now almost 3, was born in Cité Soleil, a sprawling slum that stretches out over the bleakest sectors of Port-au-Prince. Immediately after his birth, the boy’s mother, believing she had been impregnated by an evil spirit, abandoned her newborn in a latrine. A neighbor, appalled to find the infant submerged in feces, fished him out and brought him to his mother, insisting she take him to the local orphanage. By some miracle of grace, she did. Six months later, Lauri and I held the boy for the first time. Though determined to love him, we were apprehensive. Would we find any life or spirit in his eyes? We did. Today we spend our days chasing him around the house, laughing and sometimes cursing in the same breath. The child is a dynamo, a Cassius Clay in waiting and, according to our teenage son, a chick magnet. His name is Henry David, “beloved ruler of the household.”
In January 2010, my wife and I had officially been named adoptive parents to Henry and his soon-to-be sister, Sophia, then 7, but the pair were still living in a Haitian orphanage when a massive earthquake struck near Port-au-Prince, killing some 300,000 people and destroying most of the city’s buildings. The orphanage sustained damage, but none of the 130 children were harmed. In the following days the children lived and slept in the courtyard under a makeshift canopy. The 20 or so infants, Henry among them, were housed in the back of a box truck, converted into a nursery by the staff. Most of the staff members were local Haitian women, themselves mourning relatives and homes lost in the disaster. On the third day, armed looters breached the walls and raided the dwindling supplies of food, formula and bottled water. The women rubbed toothpaste under the children’s noses to mask the smell of corpses choking the air. They kept spirits high by singing spirituals and playing with the children.
Back in Cincinnati, Lauri and I slept little, prayed a lot and leaned on the support of friends and family. The sense of vulnerability nearly overwhelmed us. Before dawn on the 11th day after the earthquake, Henry, Sophia and dozens of other children from the orphanage made a harrowing trip by bus through the streets of Port-au-Prince to the airport, where they were loaded into the back of a military transport plane and flown to the United States. The next day they were welcomed by their new parents, brothers and sisters, grandparents and a host of aunts, uncles, cousins and family friends in an airport hangar in Denver. It was not exactly a manger, but there was not a dry eye in the house.
For every story like ours there are ten thousand more without a happy ending. Even ours is haunted by ambiguities. Can grace rise from the horror of an earthquake? I think often of Henry’s birth mother, praying that God has freed her from whatever dark spirits or abusive men once overshadowed her. But when I contemplate these two beautiful children who came to us “in the fullness of time,” from a chain of events and countless acts of selflessness well beyond my capacity to understand, I cannot help but fall mute in wonder. At times our noisy dinner table feels as if overshadowed by the wings of Gabriel himself, who invites us with each new day to say yes to the gift of love. This for me is the wonder, and the risk, of God’s incarnation in creatures who are free.
God Who Is With Us
In one of his most haunting meditations on the Gospels, “The Time of the End Is the Time of No Room” [PDF: Merton.NoRoom], Thomas Merton reminds us that the narratives of Jesus’ birth are not merely comforting stories that appeal to the homely spirit of Christmas, calling us back to the simplicity and innocence of lost childhood. The Nativity stories have a dangerously prophetic sting, or a spark that explodes into our precarious times, if we are able to hear them with the ears of our hearts.
The Gospel of Luke intimates that far from the centers of power and powerful men, Christ comes as a vulnerable child with nowhere to lay his head. What could this mean for the children of Cité Soleil for whom there is no room to live, no room to be loved, no room to laugh and play, no room to flourish? What hope might the Incarnation bear for those millions of children today who do not live so much as survive under the shadow of hopelessness: children and young people crowded into our nation’s bleakest schools and prisons; children hungry and traumatized in refugee camps across the earth; children traded as chattel in the global sex industry; children hiding inside our borders as “illegal aliens” or maimed and killed by U.S. drone strikes and then euphemized as “collateral damage”? The Gospel of Matthew, with its massacre of the innocents and flight into Egypt, links Jesus with the liberation brought by Moses. The child who heralds freedom and justice is feared by the profiteers of slavery and hunted by the long reach of powerful armies.
In the face of earthly powers, why put our faith in the innocent child of the Nativity, a child painfully “like us in all things but sin,” a vulnerable God who can be killed? The most honest answer may be that we do not. We put our faith in many gods, but too little in the one whose power is shown in mercy and whose love encompasses all persons, especially those, as Merton writes, “who do not belong, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, exterminated.” Thus our profound need for the Nativity stories: they “make room” in our imaginations for the divine child who lives in every child, irrespective of innocence or guilt, the Christ who hides in persons of every race, religion, nation and culture. These stories prepare our hearts for the Sermon on the Mount.
Perhaps the church draws nearest to the mystery of Incarnation when we the people of God gather in the darkness of Christmas Eve and sing “O Holy Night!”; that is when we feel the “thrill of hope” rising in our hearts and contemplate the God who comes in Jesus, who becomes the humility and defenselessness of our whole human condition. For a moment in and beyond all time, the soul feels its own worth and “a weary world rejoices.” For Lauri and me, the spirit of the Nativity draws palpably near in the lingering embraces of our kids at bedtime; she comes in the calming spirit that brings patience amid daily chaos; she overshadows us at night when the house grows still and we can rest again in the quiet of one another’s company. In the fullness of each new day God invites our participation in the life story of Love. In saying yes we discover our own worth.
A Glorious Morn
The Nativity, then, is not only about the child Jesus. It takes a people to welcome and nurture a child, even a divine one. As Christ was born “in the fullness of time,” we must not forget the fullness of human receptivity and freedom that prepared the way for God’s advent in history and consummately in human flesh. First among the cooperators in this divine drama were the Jewish people, and from their womb came Mary and Joseph. Mary’s capacity to “be still” and attend to the Spirit’s call, like her courage in saying yes, had long been prepared by her ancestors in faith. So too was Jesus taught in the ways of prayer by his parents as “he grew in wisdom and in favor before God and human beings.” Mary’s was not the first Jewish heart, nor the last, to be pierced by the costs of prophetic obedience to the Spirit. This is not the “obedience” of enforced certitudes but the free and more costly yes of covenantal partnership and heightened imagination. “See I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Is 43:19)
As a people of God still on pilgrimage in history, are we not also called to such obedience? Yet it seems that the general experience of Catholics in the church today is rather less like Mary and her prophetic forebears and more like that described so well by Drew Christiansen, S.J., several months ago: We are “numbed into acquiescence by the denial of participation, overwhelmed by unilateral decisions” (Am., 10/3). Has the Spirit of the Lord been vanquished by those entrusted to tend the vineyard? Have we died to hope where relationships seem broken or coercive beyond repair? Have we stopped expecting something new to steal in and transform our weary church, our divided communities, our suffering planet? Perhaps our reality is not so different from that of Mary and Joseph, the ancient Hebrews or the disciples hiding in the upper room. The dark spirits of power, fear and resignation still overshadow the divine child in all of us and churn their way relentlessly through the world.
To rekindle the spirit of the Nativity would be to pray for the grace of courage and hope that can transform us into a prophetic and joyful people. God is with us. No less than Mary, Joseph and all the apostles and saints, we too are the subjects of God’s incarnation and indwelling Holy Spirit. The “same mind,” the “same love,” the same “compassion and mercy,” the same “reconciliation of mind and fleshly body” that we have come to know in Jesus, and which reveal God’s glory poured out in all creation, are given fully to us by our baptism in Christ’s name and by the power of his Spirit (1 Phil 2:1-11). Is it wrong to take St. Paul at his word? The alternative, it seems, is to resign ourselves passively to a slow and frustrating death on the vine.
But where else shall we go? Something good and beautiful waits to be born in the flesh and spirit of our lives and, I want to believe, in the Catholic Church that I love and call my home. God trembles, I imagine, when we stop expecting the unexpected. “The power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Can we believe it? Better still, can we feel and imagine it?
In my own struggle to live prayerfully and hopefully in these difficult times, I have only to watch my son, Henry, romping around the backyard or splashing with joyful abandon in his bath at the end of a day to remember that miracles are happening here and now, in places like Haiti and in hidden places across the earth. But they never happen simply by divine fiat. On this holy feast of Christmas, we pray for the grace to discern the Spirit’s call and for renewed trust and fortitude to say yes. “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled” (Lk 1:45).
God invites and awaits our participation.