Christmass Day 2018
The unyielding power of gentleness ©Sue Wilton
Western social commentators who labelled 2017 the Year of Anger have begun labelling 2018, The Year of Anxiety, citing fears for the future of the planet, the rapid pace of social change, the breakdown of community, epidemic loneliness and the rise of hate speech and tribalism. It would seem that as the year comes to a close, the hope, joy, peace and love of Christmass is needed as never before. Yet as we come to this day, after weeks of anticipation and preparation, the baby in the crib may seem, right now at least, helpless to save us. For those living in occupied Palestine two millennia ago, under oppressive Roman rulers with the power over life and death of their subjects (and who seemed to have a fascination for ordering them around for the purposes of counting and creating inventories), one small baby may not have seemed like it would make a difference either. The powers that rule the world, whether that be Roman legions or modern authoritarian regimes, or the media, or multinational companies; these seem all too powerful to be affected by one human life, let alone a tiny baby whose only visitors were a few down-and-out shepherds.
Yet somehow, the angels herald the arrival of this tiny baby to be good news of great joy for all people. This vulnerable new human life is to be a sign of freedom and a new day dawning. Mary, the new mother, ponders all that she has seen and heard in her heart, and no doubt gazes at her tiny infant and wonders how one so small could be the agent of liberation against powers whose might seemed absolute. Later, as a man, Jesus will provide another sign: the innocent victim willingly submitting to death on a cross. But that sign, caught up as it is with images of violence and 2000 years of theological interpretation, has become complex and susceptible to abuse. The sign of a baby lying in an animal’s food trough is resistant in its simplicity to even the best efforts of human ideologies to colonise it.
When we think of the face of a baby, maybe we can begin to understand the power of this sign. Maybe we can begin to glimpse the beauty of this startling move of God the Creator to hide Divinity in a tiny, weak and helpless human being. Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas reflects on the power of the human face to seize us as we gaze upon it, inviting us into a relationship of love and mutual vulnerability and responsibility to the other. It is difficult not to be captured by the face of a baby. Those of us who are lucky enough to have a new baby in the family this Christmass will know that this little person becomes the focus of all the celebrations, drawing everyone in to gaze and to adore. We can only presume that Mary and Joseph and those astonished shepherds were just as captivated as they gazed upon the face of the baby Jesus. A face, of course, is so much more than a few features gathered into a countenance. The face, says Emmanuel Levinas, is ‘an opening to the infinity of the other’. The face of one we love is unutterably precious because it opens to us both the beauty and the mystery of the beloved.
The Archbishop spoke on Sunday about the way in traditional icons of Mary and Jesus, the baby Jesus’ face is turned outward to the one looking upon it. This expresses both the gentle, loving attention of the Creator toward us and the open vulnerability of Jesus the Christ to each of us and to the world. Faces are a vital threshold to that which is eternal in the other; an icon of the human soul, a window through which we are drawn in, but can never fully comprehend the depths to be found there. The face of the baby in the manger continues to draw us all in, conscious of the eternal enfleshed in one small human form whose presence invites us into the possibilities for true freedom and human responsibility.
The power of a face to seize us is the opposite to the kind of power which seeks to seize, control, and manipulate for its own ends. The naked vulnerability of a baby’s face can draw from us the kind of loving engagement that would even be neglectful of the self- many do not hesitate to sacrifice even their lives for the sake of a baby. The power of such attentive love cannot be matched by those that deal in violence and fear. In the face of the other there is that which can never be possessed and invites us instead into love and self giving. The good news of great joy is that God is revealed as eternally, compassionately self-giving, and Caesar and all the oppressive, dehumanising powers that have followed through human history can never stand against this infant witness to gentle and vulnerable love.
We have lived a year that has not been marked by gentleness.
Strident, judgemental and hostile voices seem to abound in our civic life. At this time, perhaps more than ever, the message of Christmass may be to gaze upon the infant Jesus and see our own vulnerable humanity, allowing the face of this baby to call from us a mirrored response of innocence and gentleness, of love and self-giving. Maybe this is what the poet David Whyte was referring to when he said;
Someone I have been,
I am just
about to become,
something I am
and will be forever,
the sheer generosity
of being loved
the miracle reflection
of a twice blessed life.1
A twice blessed life is about the returned gaze. It is what happens when we allow the face of another to evoke love, even as we open ourselves to being loved. The compassionate gaze can turn inward to self-compassion, when an encounter with the tenderness of Divine vulnerability gives us the strength to let go of our masks and habits of vigilant self-protection and reflect that same vulnerability in ourselves. In this place of humility, love is born in us. It is then that we can begin to become our truest self; that self who we will be forever. Then, as we recognise our own humanity (with both its weakness and its purity) in the face of the other, we recognise the face of God. The holy has been wrapped in a human child, and we surrender to the gentleness of this scene and find around the manger that in fresh ways, our own lost innocence is restored to us.
There has been much to arouse our anxiety this year. We are in an age where many strident opinions are being expressed in increasingly shrill voices. Perhaps if we take the time to gather around the manger this day, seeing again the face of God in the face of a baby, we may find the courage to look at our own face and the face of our neighbour, with mercy and kindness. Maybe, we will begin to see the face of Christ in all other faces around us, and know ourselves sharing a common life, bound together by the love of the God who crept quietly in amongst us one holy night. And maybe, 2019 may be not the year of anger nor anxiety, but a year that witnesses to the unyielding power of gentleness.
1 Twice blessed, by David Whyte