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A Wondrous Exchange

By Tim O’Malley

Before my wife and I had children, I presumed that infancy was the ideal form of human existence. In a good home, if you’re a hungry infant, someone feeds you. If you’re lonely, someone picks you up. People expect you to sleep as much as you’d like. Even the angriest or busiest New Yorker can’t help but offer at least a partial smile in the presence of a cooing babe.

Yet as I began to attend to my newborn son, I noticed the various humiliations of infancy. Having spent nine months in a climate-controlled space where food was abundant, the newborn babe experiences both hunger and cold within hours of birth. The infant is speechless, incapable of communicating desires to this recently discovered family. The infant is dependent on others for meeting every need. I don’t even like to stop for directions, let alone require a person to move me around a room so that I can see new things.

I came to recognize that infancy is not the ideal form of human existence, but infancy reveals to us precisely what it means to be human. No matter what technologies we invent, what institutional structures we build, or what large-scale economies we construct, we are creatures defined by precariousness. We are dependent, and even the richest, most powerful politician, actor, or athlete cannot escape this.

The feast of Christmas reveals to us the good news that escaping such dependency is inhuman. For the Word, the very creator of the world, became an infant, one without speech. The infant Christ took up our precariousness and dependency, experiencing the frigid chill of a newborn outside his mother’s womb. “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14), taking up exactly what it means to be human.

This solidarity, of course, is one thing when we’re talking about other human beings. We have heard about important people, including athletes and politicians, who have made friends with someone unexpected, who is neither rich nor famous. That athlete and politician still shares this human dependency with friends who lack status. In the end, they’re the same.

But when the Word became flesh, when the Son became one of us, it was God who entered into solidarity with men and women. It was the God who was outside of all time, outside of all space, outside of all required dependency, who nonetheless became dependent.

And in this act of radical solidarity, God revealed to us what it means to be both human and divine. On the feast of Christmas, we pray in the collect:

Almighty God, who hast given us thy only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and as at this time to be born of a pure Virgin: grant that we, being regenerate and made thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit.

On Christmas, we learn what it means to say that God is transcendent. God’s transcendence is not revealed in apathy toward the human condition but is instead revealed in absolute, total, self-emptying love. The Son took our nature. The Son knew hunger. The Son knew sorrow. The Son knew what it meant to love.

God, as it turns out, is love — love unto the end.

And now, dear friends, we know what it means to be human. Our desire to rid ourselves of dependency, to climb above our status as creatures, isn’t the result of human imperfection. Instead, it’s a monstrous misunderstanding of what it means to be human in the first place. If God was willing to empty himself in love, to become dependent, how much more are we mortal creatures called to recognize our dependency and precariousness?

Isn’t this, after all, what baptism is about? Baptism is not climbing outside of our humanity, receiving a salvation apart from what it means to be human. Instead, in baptism, it is our humanity that enters into divine life. We become sons and daughters of the living God. We become children of the Father, brothers and sisters of the beloved Son.

It turns out that our precariousness isn’t just the result of the Fall. Instead, it is a reminder, written upon the human heart by God, that we are made for relationship. We are made not to climb above our status, to reign over other men and women, but to become children of God.

This is the wonderful news of Christmas! We are called to become divine. And such divinity, as it turns out, will not be the result of affirming our self-importance. Instead, it will require that we remember what it means to be an infant, someone who is entirely dependent.

The path to salvation, to deification, isn’t rising above our human condition, but entering more deeply into it. Ironically, the more we remember that we are not God, that we did not make ourselves, the more we become like God.

This is the wondrous exchange of the nativity of the Word made flesh. This is salvation.


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