Q: Archbishop J, why do you believe that God exists (part 6)? The Christmas mystery
For God to become a baby, born of a woman is as paradoxical as it gets! Yet the Christmas mystery is a wonderful bridge for many people who struggle with the image of God.
In the manger, we see a child vulnerable, dependent, powerless. These are not words we normally associate with God. Yet this is how God chose to come amongst us.
My stumbling into the darkness as a seminarian was because of my confusion about the nature of God. We learnt in theology four attributes of God: omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent. God is all-powerful, all-knowing, present everywhere at the same time and all-good.
My encounter with the powerlessness of the poor was a significant challenge. If God is all these things, how is it the poor suffer and do not receive direct help from God in the things that matter most?
I bumbled into the question of theodicy—the question of evil. If God is all-good, all-powerful, all-present and all-knowing, how come there is such devastating evil in the world? Why do so many live in poverty?
What unravelled was not God, it was my concept of God—my God-construct. The finite mind cannot contain the infinite. At best, we create constructs to assist us in grasping some elements of the infinite.
As we look at the Bible, we can see the progression in the image of God. From the biggest and baddest amongst all the gods, to the Creator and the only God, to a God of mercy and tenderness at Sinai, to mercy and faithfulness (steadfast love) in Hosea, to powerlessness in the Incarnation.
God has not changed, our capacity to grasp more of the truth of God has changed as we have journeyed with God over time.
When I listen to people who object to God, what I hear is an objection to a God-construct that has little to do with God—certainly not the God of Jesus Christ—you know, the old man with the long, white beard waiting to hit you when you step out of line.
Well, that may be a projection from the super ego, but that is not the God of Jesus Christ. Our unconscious sense, when things go wrong, of a God who is punishing us bears no relation to the God of Jesus Christ. That is a God-construct, a human way of conceiving of God that has nothing to do with who God is.
The powerlessness of God
Confronted with my false constructs about God, I went in search and stumbled upon this concept of the powerlessness of God. This is the image the Church puts before us every year at Christmas. The crèche is a meditation on powerlessness, vulnerability, and dependence. That is the story of Christmas.
There is no room in the inn for the Holy Family. The Child is born in the messiness of a cow pen with all the animals and their filth. The Child is put to lie in a manger where the animals feed. Herod seeks to take His life and the parents need to flee to Egypt. The Child becomes a refugee. It is all there before our eyes. God chose to become powerless, vulnerable, and dependent!
This was a very difficult shift in my journey—to see God as powerless. The more I saw it, the more it made sense. God is self-sufficient—God needs nothing. Creation did not occur because of a need in the Godhead, but from the overflow of love. What is love if it is not vulnerable, powerless, and dependent before the beloved.
St Bernard of Clairvaux has a profound meditation on the Annunciation. He meditates on the waiting of the angel on Mary’s answer. Through the angel, God waits on Mary’s reply.
Ponder this for a moment: God waits on Mary’s reply. This is vital if we are to understand the truth of God. In God’s self, the words, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent are absolutely true and completely understated, in every sense that the human can understand. In the creation of the human, however, another dynamic emerges.
Why were we created with free will? Because of love. Free will is necessary if someone is to be capable of love. The gift of free will that God gives us is absolute. There is no ‘oops’ button to revoke that instance, or this indiscretion. We see that in St Bernard’s meditation.
God, the angel, Adam and Eve, David and all the patriarchs wait on Mary’s response. In the face of our free will, God chooses powerlessness. When we use free will badly, bad things happen in the world and that is on us, not on God. All evil has come from our bad choices.
God is born in utter poverty and humility so we could understand the truth of God. God is love and love is always humble and powerless before the beloved. All the treasures of Christmas point to this revelation—the powerlessness and humanity of God.
When God’s people act with arrogance, pride, and power, they are not representing God. They are displaying their unfinished father issues; the deep hurt they carry from the very early stage of development that brings lack of trust.
They are displaying the insecurity at the core of their being. They have not yet encountered the living God who chose to come as a helpless, vulnerable baby in utter poverty and humility.
The three wise men bow before this Child bringing their gifts. They see the truth. All the constructs of God as a tyrant or punisher are shattered by the scene of the crèche. What emerges from Christmas is the utter humility of God who calls His people to imitate His Son: “Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:6–8).