“Lord Jesus Christ, through your Incarnation you accepted a human nature and lived a real, human life. Setting aside the glory of your divinity, you met us face to face in the vulnerability of our humanity.”
This is the beginning of Bishop Barron’s beautiful Prayer to a Suffering Church that concludes his book, Letter to a Suffering Church. While the mystery of the Incarnation holds inexhaustible beauty and meaning, I think it’s valuable today to reflect on this most significant event in light of humanity’s vulnerability.
The Early Church Fathers spoke of our original parents being clothed with the Glory of God. Before the fall, in a real way, Adam and Eve could see God when they gazed upon each other. They were “naked, yet they felt no shame.” Their bodies were impervious to illness, suffering, abuse, and even death.
The very first thing they realized after that original sin was the loss of this invulnerability, they “knew that they were naked.” Eve looked at Adam and saw something radically less than what she had seen moments before, she saw something that could be used and manipulated. And with that realization came the awareness that she could also be used and manipulated. So they immediately made themselves clothes to protect their bodies that were now vulnerable to abuse, suffering, and death.
It was this vulnerable body that Christ clothed himself with at the moment of the Incarnation. The God who created time entered into human history as an unborn child in the womb of an unwed woman. Jesus was born into poverty; he spent his first night sleeping in a feeding trough. He experienced all of the vulnerability and uncertainty that every infant experiences. Pope Francis recently reflected on the nativity saying, “God’s ways are astonishing, for it seems impossible that he should forsake his glory to become a man like us. To our astonishment, we see God acting exactly as we do: he sleeps, takes milk from his mother, cries and plays like every other child!”
Then, as a toddler, Jesus became the target of a tyrant willing to slaughter children in order to hunt him down. Mary and Joseph are forced to flee their home and become refugees in a foreign land. This is the mark of Jesus’ entire life. Christ experienced our fallen vulnerability all the way to the cross. Bishop Barron continues his beautiful prayer (emphasis mine):
“Your descent into our nature was not without risk, as it exposed you to the assaults of the darkest and most terrifying of humanity’s fallen desires—our cruelty and narrowness, our deceptions and our denials. All this culminated in the cross, where your divine love was met with the full fury of our malice, our violence, and our estrangement from your grace.
You offered yourself to us with innocence and receptivity, and this was met with the abuse of your body, humiliation and mockery, betrayal and isolation, torture and death. All this—even the dereliction of feeling abandoned by God—you accepted. You became a victim, so that all those victimized since the beginning of the world would know you as their advocate.”
By becoming vulnerable, God personally became an advocate for all who are vulnerable. Jesus made this clear when he said, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). Or as St. Rose of Lima said simply, “When we serve the poor and the sick, we serve Jesus.” We love God to the extent that we love the vulnerable.
It’s from here that the Church teaches that the Holy Family is the model and protector of every migrant and refugee fleeing violence or poverty. In every immigrant we must see Jesus. Likewise, I would say that the unborn Christ is the model and protector of every child threatened by abortion; the impoverished Christ is the model and protector of the poor; the homeless Christ is the model and protector of everyone with no place to rest their head. When our God clothed himself in our vulnerability he revealed the immeasurable dignity of the most vulnerable.
In his Christmas address to the Roman Curia, the pope said, “Let us not forget that the Child lying in the manger has the face of our brothers and sisters most in need.” Spend time with Jesus this Christmas season by visiting the lonely, sick, or imprisoned. Serve Jesus by feeding the hungry and welcoming the stranger. When you sit in front of the nativity scene today, pray for the faith to see divinity hidden in vulnerable humanity.
[Photograph of the Nativity scene at Claremont United Methodist Church]
Paul Fahey is a husband, father of four, parish director of religious education, and co-founder of Where Peter Is. He can be found at his website, Rejoice and be Glad: Catholicism in the Pope Francis Generation.