For centuries we have been asking this question so beautifully sung in the Christmas hymn we all know. Who really is Jesus, the Christ? At this time of year, we imagine him as a helpless baby. We think that if Jesus suddenly came into our lives as he did in that little stable, we would enshroud him with blankets and milk. We would insist on feeding Mary and Joseph. We’d secure better lodgings for them. We’d make sure this little family would have everything they need. We would do all that, wouldn’t we? Who wouldn’t do that for Jesus? With the advantage of hindsight and knowledge, we would do this. But, would we really do it without this hindsight? Or, would we react the same way as the innkeepers of Bethlehem? We might think that if we lived in Bethlehem at that time, we could not possibly ignore this Child shivering in a stable. And yet, this is exactly what the simple, faithful Jews, and rambunctious Romans did all because they did not know who was born in that stable. They did not ‘see’ God.
The innkeepers and busy people of Bethlehem were swamped with travelers because of the census. They received no help from Roman authorities who were running the city and flexing their military muscle to keep the Jewish people in orderly lines at inns and market stalls, and pitching tents on hillsides. One historian estimated that Bethlehem was then rife with crime as travelers lost precious coins to thieves. Some robbers stole the food of the travelers. Women were constantly in danger. Our Christmas card depictions of Bethlehem do not show the real city at that time. They capture only the one true moment of God’s sudden appearance on earth, that short, brief moment of peace when God, in the form of a Child who was to teach us the way to eternal life, was born vulnerable and human in a smelly stable with only shepherds and foreign visitors to welcome him.
On our American borders there are children born the same way. There are also government officials applying laws and regulations to immigrant parents the same way they did in Bethlehem. There is a paucity of food and water. There are robbers and ‘coyotes’, the lawless transport drivers who pretend to carry the immigrants to safety but often leave them to die on the way. In reality, the babies are the Jesus of Bethlehem. Do we ‘see’ our God in them? If we believe God is in each person—and our Christian faith tells us this is true—then we know Jesus is born along the American border; he is born to poor parents fleeing their homeland to find security for their children. He is born in the cages for refugees. He is born as a child needing medical attention in the hospitals caring for sick babies. How can we not provide the blankets, the food, the safety, to these children now? How can we not pray for the health of the sick babies and contribute what we can for their welfare?
If the image of my God at this time is one of a helpless child, then I will see this innocent, loving God in the faces of children who yearn to be free, healthy, whole in this world. My God, then, is an image of innocence and love.
Spirituality writer, Father Richard Rohr, recently commented that our image of God is constructed from the behaviors of authorities that we observed beginning in childhood. If we had rigid or demanding parents, we saw God as that way. Similarly, if parents or teachers were unyielding in their rules and cruel in their punishments, we saw God that way. As we grew into adulthood, we made God into an uncompromising judge, a dispenser of rewards for the obedient and a tyrant of punishment for the miscreant. Such an image does not allow God to be merciful, kind, loving. And, all too often says Rohr, this image of God is also how we filter our perceptions of other people as well.
However, our ‘trusted’ old catechism says that “…we are made in the image and likeness of God.” In the core of one’s being, one is kind, merciful, loving, forgiving. Our catechism’s description of this beautiful character as the image of God, means that the God in us sees that same God in every human being, even that little baby crying for help in Bethlehem centuries ago or in today’s refugee camp, childrens’ hospital or crime infested neighborhood.
For this week, ask yourself how you ‘see’ God. Is your God a just God and still a loving God? Do you ‘see’ a vengeful God or a forgiving God? Do you ‘see’ an understanding God or a dictatorial God?
When you can answer these questions, you will know who the Child is on Mary’s breast.
My prayers continue to be with all of you, my readers and Anonymous Angels, walking this Advent journey.