One of my favorite teachers liked to say that if he were the Son of God, he wouldn’t have come to Earth the way Jesus did. Instead, he’d wear a “Son of God” sash and ride on an enormous float in the Rose Parade, zapping people he didn’t like. This description has always reminded me of this clip from the movie “Bruce Almighty”:
Bruce thinks it’s no use being all-powerful if you don’t take advantage of the perks. But God’s ways are not our ways.
My teacher was making a point about the nature of God’s power. Sometimes, we pray as if God is like Bruce in the clip: a sort of cosmic puppet master who snaps his fingers and makes things happen. We want God to take the illness away, to spin the hurricane out to sea, to freeze the gunman’s feet to the ground as he approaches the school.
Certainly miracles happen. But most of the time, God uses his power in a different, less flashy way. Christmas is the perfect example of the “weak power” of God.
“And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”
Out of the millions of ways God could have come into the world, he chose an infant: a person completely dependent on the loving care of his parents. God comes to us in incredible humility, with the innocence of an infant in a manger. The meekness of the scene show us how God operates. God’s power is not like Bruce’s finger-snapping tricks, but the kind of power that exists in the quiet gaze of a mother upon her newborn son.
At a lecture a few years ago, spiritual writer Fr. Ron Rolheiser described the power of Christmas in a way that has stuck with me. Imagine you were in a room with a football linebacker and a newborn child in a bassinet, Fr. Ron said. First, the linebacker tackles you to the ground. That’s a sort of power there. Maybe he knocks the wind out of you, bruises a few ribs.
You pull yourself together, get up, and walk over to the baby. You pick the baby up and rock her gently in your arms. All of a sudden, you start to coo and speak an indiscernible language. The baby’s innocence, smallness, and fragility have melted your heart.
While the linebacker’s power affected you physically, the infant’s impact on your interior life is more profound. This is the weak power of God at work.
God as an infant is just the beginning of a pattern of weak power. Right after his birth, the Holy Family flees to Egypt to escape King Herod. They are political refugees. The baby Jesus is a stranger in an unknown land. (If we’re looking for the presence of God in the modern world, we’d be wise to start at an immigration detention center or refugee camp.)
During his public ministry, Jesus is an itinerant, homeless preacher with no social status. At the Last Supper, as an example of what his kingdom looks like, he gets down on his hands and knees and washes his disciples’ filthy, calloused feet. The next afternoon, he hands himself over to a humiliating execution.
We see his weak power at every turn throughout the Gospels.
And the world was changed forever.
A Christmas prayer, then, asking for God’s weak power to continue changing the world:
We live in difficult days.
Do not let our hearts be hardened
By violence and hatred.
Instead, send your helpless, homeless, infant son
To change us:
To remind us to be gentle with one another.
To inspire us to care for those children in the world
Born into modern-day mangers.
To help us see ourselves as you see us—
As precious sons and daughters.
To give us hope that your love,
In its weakness,
Is stronger than bullets.
We pray these things in your son’s name.