I admit it. I've indulged in the annual clerical ritual: I've used the holiday to lament America's spiritual decay and rampant materialism. Ecclesiastical moaning has become part of the Christmas tradition, bundled in the same package as the eggnog, tree-trimmings and Uncle Sal's weird presents ("Thanks, Sal. I love it. One question: What is it?"). Cue the condemning sermon, look somber, then breathe a sigh of relief and pass the mashed potatoes.
I'll break the ritual and ponder the full, personal brunt of the Christmas message. How has it touched me?
My thoughts turn to God, who chose to live as a human being, beginning as a baby. God did not merely appear human or become similar to a human. God was human, stripped of divinity's power. The baby howls at night. He needs food. Mary must change his clothes. Joseph stumbles out of bed in the morning, a bleary-eyed craftsman wishing his son didn't wake him at 3 A.M. My thoughts turn to me: I too was a howling baby who woke up my parents. Our God could empathize with me even then: The Cosmic Being had once been an infant.
My thoughts turn again to that Being: God grew up as a boy, experiencing a childhood so normal that the Gospel writers barely mention it. My thoughts turn to me once more and my own childhood memories, and then I remember myself as a quivering adolescent, confronted with the reality that I had been a self-pitying ball of mush. But instead of enduring God's wrath, I found empathetic love: God had been an adolescent -- not an adolescent like me, for Jesus was sinless -- but he had been an adolescent nonetheless. Divine love enveloped me and prompted me to hand my life to Christ. Unlike many, I can pinpoint the date I was "born from above:" July 6, 1973.
I remember my subsequent spiritual growth; I remember becoming trapped in a nowhere career; I remember my loving God releasing the trap. God was always present, nurturing me with the love of someone who had been there. I remember the joys of meeting my future wife. I remember confronting a potentially fatal illness and the possibility of leaving my new bride a widow. God was with me then; he knew the travails of deep suffering when Jesus was nailed to the cross. God's unremitting empathy has remained through the years. I felt it in my joy at the birth of our son; I felt it when we wept at the loss of a child through an ectopic pregnancy. God laughed. God empathized. God wept.
We do not worship a God who is merely all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving. Our God is all those things and more: The Almighty has experienced human joy, human pain, human suffering and human victory. Baffling as it seems, God not only possesses divinity; God possesses humanity.
I'm sure Mary cooed and sung lullabies to Jesus. What were her intuitions as she suckled him? Were there moments when she looked into her baby's eyes and saw the eons staring back at her? I'm sure she was too struck with awe to lament society's spiritual decay.