Cover story -- Christmas
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Issue Date:  December 23, 2005

Jesus' birth proves the power of vulnerability


I get off at the Sherbourne subway and take the Glen Road exit toward my flat on Bleecker Street, downtown Toronto. A woman is walking ahead of me. As we climb the stairs to the narrow street she glances at the tunnel on the left where someone was stabbed to death a few days ago. The sun has set. Wet snow is falling. We both walk up the secluded street on the side with the abandoned houses. She is nervous and keeps partially looking back at me. I try to slow down. She seems even more nervous. I cross the street. She still seems afraid. I feel utterly powerless to take away her fear.

Years later, I am walking in a secluded back lane near Queen and Greenwood in the predawn darkness. The July heat has not diminished overnight. It is so quiet I can hear the sound of a raccoon’s paws against the pavement as it nervously scurries away from me. I am carrying my newborn son in my arms. Suddenly a woman opens her backyard gate. By reflex she lets out a gasp at the unexpected silhouette of a stranger in the dark. Fear covers her face. Then, as the gate fully opens, she sees the baby in my arms. Light laughter floats out of her mouth. The originally tense situation is so radically transformed by the baby that a graceful conversation ensues.

I am struck by the baby’s real power to transform the woman’s fear into relaxed delight. Fear is at the root of most violence. The capacity to transform fear is true power. Imagine a whole people capable of transforming its fear into passionate nonviolent strength in the face of terrorism.

My newborn has tremendous power. No one, not even my spouse, could have so radically altered my life -- depriving me of sleep, demanding relentless attention and preventing me from attending to vital tasks. All this is real power.

And yet my newborn son is completely vulnerable. He is utterly dependent on Anna and me. Without our physical care, Luc would not survive. Without our unconditional love, he would not thrive.

My newborn child embodies both power and vulnerability. Is this not the essence of the Christmas story? Beyond the hype of consumerist religion and the hype of religious consumerism, does Christmas offer any useful spiritual wisdom for these war-ravaged times? Does the story of baby Jesus matter at all in a world of child soldiers? It definitely does, when we understand this essential element of the Christmas message: Healthy, life-giving power cannot be separated from vulnerability. “Baby Jesus” is both Christ and Child, both powerful and vulnerable. Jesus reveals God’s face but is branded a common criminal and becomes expendable.

All the Christian mystics mirror power and vulnerability. St. Francis of Assisi moves unarmed through the ranks of the Christian crusaders to meet Melek al Kamil, the Muslim leader. Both men are changed by the encounter. Melek al Kamil is so taken by this Christian that he disregards all his advisers’ warnings about infidels and decrees that Francis should be escorted safely back. As a manual worker, Francis puts his trust in “God’s table” and lives at the edge of society with the forgotten and shunned, the lepers and beggars.

André and Magda Trocmé lead their parish in nonviolent resistance to the Nazis who have occupied their French village. There, in Le Chambon, approximately 5,000 unarmed Christians risk their lives to save roughly 5,000 Jews. Power and vulnerability. Alfred Delp, a Jesuit priest living in Nazi Germany, denounces and resists the churches’ “creation of the mass mind.” He is arrested by the Nazi government for being subversive. Days before his execution, he writes from his prison cell, “God often carries me as if I’m a sleeping child.”

The sleeping child trusts fully. The mystic trusts fully. “Unless you become as a child you cannot live in God’s realm,” declared Christ (Matthew 18:3). Vulnerable trust in God and utter renunciation of violence, especially the atrocious lie of war, is the mystic’s real power -- a power “that even death cannot overcome,” insisted Oscar Romero. (Years ago, while working in a very poor mountain village in Nicaragua, I noticed the image of Romero in almost every humble house and hut. Power beyond death.)

What is power? Rabia Terri Harris, director of the U.S. Muslim Peace Fellowship, offers one of the most eloquent descriptions of power I have ever read: “Whether aspiring champions of religion are motivated by private ego or by that collective manifestation of ego known as empire, the results are likely to be the same. Power is not a magic trophy to be fought for, but an infinite spiritual resource. Power becomes obscured when worldly dominance is ascendant. It comes to the fore when dominance is rejected.”

Part of war’s profound spiritual naiveté is the premise that evil -- in the form of “enemies” -- can be made to disappear, can be bombed or tortured out of existence. Belief in and cooperation with such illusions is evidence of spiritual immaturity. In dramatic contrast, Christ, the grown-up baby Jesus, invites us to become as mature in love as God is (Matthew 5:48). This stunning invitation is directly related to Christ’s revolutionary call to love our enemy (Matthew 5:44).

Violence is the incapacity or the unwillingness to be vulnerable when faced with the enemy -- the enemy in one’s self or in others. In the force of organized violence, when a person or a people is vulnerable you zero in to dominate or destroy. In the other force, the force of organized nonviolence, when a person or a people is vulnerable you also zero in, but to support and heal.

The urgent spiritual message of the Christmas story, the story of a child’s birth revealing God’s nature, is this: Separating vulnerability from power leads to violence. Power without vulnerability leads to brutal, empty victory over others. Victory over others in turn leads to ever-growing alienation. Power connected to vulnerability leads to the indestructible freedom of reconciliation with oneself and with others, including the enemy.

There is more, much more, to the story of the newborn baby Jesus than our culture would have us believe. I have held the wrinkled hands of my newborn son and I have held the wrinkled hands of my dying mother. From beginning to end, the intense demands of life lived to its fullness leave absolutely no room for the grotesquely wasteful demands of a perpetual war economy.

The carols, festive meals and bright lights of Christmas will someday become a celebration of both power and vulnerability, the Newborn’s gift to every person and nation.

Leonard Desroches is a drywaller by trade and a founder of Catholic New Times, a national Canadian newspaper. He has written and taught on the spirituality of nonviolence and has been a nonviolence trainer for Christian Peacemaker Teams. His son Luc, now 2 and a half years old, is the godson of Jim Loney, one of the four members of the Peacemaker Teams abducted in Iraq.

National Catholic Reporter, December 23, 2005

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