December 27, 2015

Growing up too Fast

         It’s only two days after Christmas day, when we celebrated God’s entrance into our world as an infant. In the mystery of Christmas, we got to experience God not as our protector and provider, but as a being wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. God as a being who shared our vulnerability and who needed our care. This simple mystery gives us so much to marvel at, and so much to ponder.

Not all of that pondering feels safe and warm. Christmas gives us the chance to wonder: If God is in this child, then who is minding the universe? When God is a child, we can’t take refuge in him or rely on him in the same way that we might have gotten used to. When God is a child, we need to adore and care for him, not wait to be coddled ourselves. When God is an infant wrapped up tight, we all need to discover our strength. Beholding that child, we have to be the grown-ups. It’s unsettling to think about.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that in our readings for today just two days after Christmas, God is back to being the Father and we are back to being the children. In today’s Scriptures, God is very much the Lord of the universe, and hardly a helpless infant anymore.

I know that kids grow up fast, but this is a little ridiculous. In our Psalm, God is not in a manger but squarely in the heavens, ordering the weather around and protecting and feeding his people. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, God is not a babe-in-arms but our Abba, our Father. We receive the Spirit to call out to God as our Father, and we are adopted as God’s children, rather than us receiving God among us as a child. In John’s gospel, the Son is here not so much to be a baby but to be the Father’s heart, and to give us power not to grow up but to become that Father’s beloved children.

         With these readings, the equilibrium of the universe is restored very quickly after the Christmas upset. Just two days ago, God was a vulnerable and helpless child, and we had to reckon with the realities and responsibilities of life in the new kingdom. But today, God is back to being our Father in heaven, and we are his precious children—protected, provided for, and deeply loved.

         There’s nothing wrong with recognizing God as our Father or ourselves as God’s children. But I do wonder whether these readings rush us too quickly past the Christmas experience and nativity story of God’s infancy in human flesh. Perhaps too soon we start to reflect on the paradox that God is both our Father in Heaven as well as the Son in human flesh. We don’t take the time to reckon with a God who is vulnerable and helpless.

         Christian theological reflection sometimes rushes past the fears triggered and the obligations incurred by God’s presence among us in the flesh of a child—or among the poor, the excluded, and the oppressed. Early theological perspectives were excluded as heretical if they argued that God the Father himself was incarnate in Jesus Christ. The prevailing Trinitarian orthodoxy—which we proclaim in the Episcopal Church—located only God the Son in Jesus Christ, leaving God the Father safely in heaven, still capable of protecting us, and above passion and suffering.

         As our church year unfolds, we have many opportunities to experience God as Father and Holy Spirit. But notice that we have only one very short season to reflect on God the Son as a child. So today, I wish we could pause and ponder just a little longer. Let’s not give in to the temptation to rush past the infancy of God—past the Christmas reversal of the order of the universe. Let’s not revert too quickly to a sense of God as primarily a parent. And let’s not regress to a childish faith that simply meets our needs for security and love.

         In the infant Jesus, God reveals himself as one who shares our vulnerability—and who helps us confront the reality that we are more vulnerable than we’d sometimes like to believe. When God comes to us as an infant in the Christmas season, we have to reckon with the feeling that maybe no one is in control, maybe no one is in charge—or at least not in the way that we try to believe from time to time. The harsh truth about this world is that God doesn’t always protect or provide for each individual child. Although we may receive protection and providence in our lives, it’s not because our faith or our God guarantees these things. Instead, God in the Son shows us how to offer our fragile lives in gratitude for whatever peace, health, and love that we happen to find along the way.

         In the infant Jesus, God also reveals himself as one who is counting on us—who will only survive in this world if we nurture him. This God doesn’t just busy himself about our needs; this God presents himself to us with needs of his own. This God needs our courage, our compassion, our loving attention. This God entrusts himself to our care.

         So many things fly by in this fleeting world—especially the Christmas season, and childhood itself. The call of the Christ child is to resist our desire to move too quickly beyond unsettling revelations, and to restore theological order as soon as we can. What does it mean that God chose to be with us and reveal himself in this moment as a human infant rather than just a heavenly Father? Sometimes, I shudder to think what this means. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think it. Amen