I’ve been thinking about a passage I recently came across in Thomas Merton about the crucifixion. Jesus, Merton says, “was put to death on the cross because He did not measure up to man’s conception of His Holiness. He was not holy enough, He was not holy in the right way, He was not holy in the way they had been led to expect.” And his dying itself, Merton says, and the manner of his dying, was “the complete denial and rejection of all human ideas of holiness and perfection.” In the eyes of the people the crucifixion was the very definition of “unholy.”
I’ve been thinking that this sense of disappointment and resistance applies to the birth of Jesus, too. That the birth of Jesus, too, is the embodiment of what is holy, and yet it has nothing to do with self-discipline or self-denial or prayer or good works. God Almighty did not become incarnate as a superhero or a political party or a set of ideas or a program or a method or a general, unfocused feeling of goodwill. He became a baby. A baby boy. And though when we think of babies we think of their cuteness, we think of holding them and cuddling them, the Child Jesus becomes something else again when we think of him as our model, as the image of who we are supposed to be.
Helpless. Innocent. Dependent.
Radically helpless. Radically innocent. Radically dependent.
After Christmas Barb and I went to the beach. It was overcast and gray but it wasn’t raining and we walked along the shore with the dogs, talking and looking out at the waves.
The first sneaker wave only caught me. I was looking away, and the next thing I knew I was soaked to the shins.
With the second one, a few minutes later, Barb shouted, and I ran as fast I could, arms pumping, and when I looked back Barb had fallen to her knees in the sand, and the water was streaming around her, the way it streams around the rocks when the tide goes out, and she was smiling, she was smiling this sweet, shocked smile, and I realized again how much I love her, and how glad I am to be alive, and how beautiful the world is.
I waded back to her, and helped her up, and we went back to the car and changed into dry clothes, and then we went to have lunch, laughing and shaking our heads.
We need to pray, we need to go to mass, we need to observe the disciplines. We need to serve others. But I think that one of the things the crucifixion means for us, and one of the things the birth of Jesus means for us, is that God is with us, God is everywhere, everything is holy and every moment is holy, and that we are always and everywhere in the hands of God, we are always and everywhere being formed by his love and his power. Being called.
“If we are to be holy,” Merton says, “we must therefore be something that we do not understand, something mysterious and hidden. . . for God, in Christ, emptied himself. He became a man.”