Sometimes we make to simplistic a judgment here. We look at the sweetness and innocence of a baby and conclude that it makes sense for God to be born into our world in this way. That is not entirely wrong, there is indeed a godliness in innocence and sweetness, but that is not the point. What God’s birth as a baby underlines is not so much the sweetness of love and the virtue of innocence as the power of vulnerability and helplessness to put us on the road to life. In that sense, the manger and the cross say the same thing, namely, that vulnerability, not power, is what brings life.
Thus, when Jesus says that little children enter the kingdom effortlessly, he is not idealizing so much the innocence of children as he is their helplessness. Children enter the kingdom of God easily because they are helpless and have no power. A child cannot even feed itself, let alone earn the food it eats. In such helplessness, one can only cry out and it is this precise poverty that is the opening where life can be given.
What precisely is meant here? How are vulnerability and powerlessness the keys to life? Sometimes a thing can be understood better by seeing it against its opposite. With this in mind, allow me to present the antithesis of the Christmas scene.
When one looks at a Christmas crèche, one sees a baby surrounded by a woman (Mary), a man (Joseph), a few shepherds and kings, some angels, and an assortment of animals (sheep and camels). Everything in the scene speaks of peace, of joy, of healing, and of calm. Moreover the scene suggests that it is something flowing out of the baby, a silence and a helplessness, that lies at the root of all this peace and joy. What might its opposite look like?
In a recent novel entitled, Our Father, Marilyn French tells the story of four half sisters who are attending to their father who has recently been incapacitated by a stroke. He, their father, had been a man out of whom power flowed. Gifted with a great intelligence, a handsome appearance, a vigorous health, a rich family inheritance, an excellent education, a very prestigious job, and a natural arrogance, he had been a man whom everyone met with a mixture of respect, fear, and envy. He was now eight-two years old and for all of his life he had always had wealth, power, attention, health, sex, an important job, and the respect of his peers. What he had wanted from life he had simply taken. In fact, during the prime of his life, he didn’t even have to take what he wanted; it was simply given to him by those around him. As one of the daughters described it: “He never even rang for a servant when my mother was alive – they had the bells then. She did it. He was so powerful things just appeared before him when he wanted them, everyone around him made sure of that.” (Marilyn French, Our Father, Penguin Books, London, p.304)
His four daughters, each from a different mother, are now attending to him. None of them has had a happy experience of him. His power has deeply wounded each of them, abused each of them, and helped alienate them from each other. One daughter is frigid and angry; the second is spoiled and unable to care for herself; the third is well meaning but insecure; and the last is lesbian and bitter. As they keep vigil together around his sickbed, an interesting thing happens: Whenever they feel his power (his money, his influence in history, his status with others, his power over their mothers, his capacity to control others, and his indifference to and abuse of them when they were children) they fill with bitterness, hurt, and jealousy of each other. His power is a poison, the opposite of a Christmas crèche.
Conversely, however, whenever they sense his helplessness and vulnerability a certain silent healing flows out and they begin to feel a certain calm, peace, and healing. His power had wounded them, his helplessness helps heal them; his power had brought death, jealousy, and bitterness, his helplessness finally helps bring some life.
That is why God chose to be born as a baby. Helplessness and vulnerability are where life enters. Had God sent a superman or superwoman to clean up the world things would have ended up in even more of a mess. So God sent a baby. In that powerlessness our healing can begin.