|The Adoration of the Shepherds|
Francesco di Simone Ferrucci, 1475/85
National Gallery of Art, Washington
And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. (Luke 2:12, RSV)
That’s the sign: a newborn baby. And not only a newborn baby, but one bundled up tightly and placed in a feed trough. That’s pretty much helpless, made more helpless, and then consigned to perfect helplessness. And that’s the sign? That will be the cause of rejoicing?
Like all the touchstones of our faith, this one can become so familiar and shopworn after the parade of images on cards and in songs that we rarely stop to appreciate how truly strange it is; strange, and common. Babies are present everywhere and at all times throughout human existence; babies are everywhere and at all times completely helpless. This one, though, is different, because this one is the Savior from God; this one is, in fact, God. Indistinguishable from every other baby in his helplessness.
But the very helplessness of the baby sheds light on the power of God. For babies routinely change the behavior of people who are strong and capable; infants make people change their plans, drop what they are doing, end even risk their lives. They reveal the strange power of helplessness.
A quick search of headlines reveals this is true in our time and place: Total stranger saves the life of choking Toledo toddler; Stranger Caught On Camera Saving Dying Child At Supermarket; Family stuck in flooded truck meets hero who saved baby's life; Stranger Saves Baby’s Life from Fire As Desperate Mom Drops Her from the Third Floor; Baby rescued on Miami roadside by stranger who gave CPR; Strangers Rescue Babies From Watery Grave in Texas; Stranger Saves Baby From Choking at North Carolina Restaurant; Guy Almost Dies Trying To Save Baby In A Pram That Rolled Onto Train Tracks. Those are all real headlines, and recent.
We may believe and even expect sacrifices or heroic actions by mothers of babies, or fathers, or even siblings, other relatives, or family friends. But strangers? They all dropped what they were doing, put aside what they had planned, and responded to the helpless baby. And what about “Guy almost dies trying to save baby?” He was probably simply on his way to work, but seeing the baby’s danger, risked himself, and almost died! What could motivate a stranger to put aside fear for his own life and safety, but helplessness?
So God, Who comes to save us, reaches out by being … helpless? What happened to power and might, and all that? But there he is, daring us to refuse to respond, daring strangers to leave him to His own helplessness. Who can pass a helpless baby? And so He begins to change lives.
This is exactly what He promised, if we recall the words of the prophet Isaiah: Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain the just: let the earth be opened, and bud forth a savior: and let justice spring up together: I the Lord have created him. (Is 45:8 Douay-Rheims) What could be gentler than dew? What could be more fragile than a flower’s bud? And so shall our Savior be.
It is possible to resist; it is possible to refuse. So was it foretold by Simeon to Mary and Joseph in the Temple, when them presented their child there: Behold, this child is destined to bring about the fall of many and the rise of many in Israel; to be a sign which men will refuse to acknowledge. (Luke 2:34, Knox version)
So do many resist the helplessness of a child, even in our time, and respond with selfishness and disregard. So do many respond to the helpless Savior, insisting like the thief crucified on His left side that He prove Himself by saving Himself, and them. (cf. Luke 23:39) And in refusing to acknowledge, they embrace their own destruction.
But this Lord Who Comes is not only helpless and gentle; no, He is also relentless, like the rain that falls: And as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return no more thither, but soak the earth, and water it, and make it to spring, and give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater: So shall my word be, which shall go forth from my mouth: it shall not return to me void, but it shall do whatsoever I please, and shall prosper in the things for which I sent it. (Is 55:10-11, Douay-Rheims)
And so He comes. He Whom we thought we knew, He whom we were convinced we understood, presents himself to us afresh in His helplessness. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. This holy night, we behold him with fresh eyes, especially if we are around children. In our day and time children see and recognize their fellow helpless-one as they look at the Christmas crib. They recognize love -- fragile, vulnerable love -- that has so much in common with them, and in their eyes, we can see Him too.
Looking at Him, we can hear the call that love speaks: love calls us to drop what we are doing, put aside what we had planned, and move closer. Love even calls us to put aside fear for our own lives and safety, and do His bidding!
He is vulnerable, and persistent. He is helpless, and relentless.
|Madonna and Child, Andrea Verrocchio, c. 1475; |
usually in the Bargello museum in Florence, Italy,
but in Washington at the National Gallery of Art
until 12 January 2020.
May the newborn Infant King, Who comes to conquer with love, give to you and your families and friends and all who are dear to you warmth and light, food and drink, and a share in His kingdom forever. With the promise of my prayers for you throughout the year, please let me wish you all a blessed and truly merry Christmas.