Rev. Jim Ryan, Ph.D.
How familiar is the image of the manger that serves as cradle for the newly born Jesus; familiar, too, is our understanding that the Word of God becomes human in this child. But how are we to understand this divine Word who grew in human “wisdom, age, and grace?” (Luke 2:52) How does the Creator’s Word become creature? In other words, how are we to understand the development of this human Jesus if he is in reality fully divine and fully human?
To approach this I rely, one last time, on my friend, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It’s the end of the calendar year so I must apply my self-imposed deadline and conclude the reading of his work. It’s time to prepare for new reading partners in 2023. So, this one last time. I ask, what does it take for this divine One to become fully human? What are the ways that this cradled and swaddled baby will arrive at full personhood? Christmas brings home again our belief that Jesus is a human person as I am a human person. As John writes in the beginning of his Gospel, “Of the Begotten One’s fullness we have all had a share – love following upon love.” (John 1:16). Let’s turn that quote on its ear and state, “Of our human fullness the Begotten One has had a share.” Now let’s think whether that matters at all.
According to Bonhoeffer the human being faces two paths both of which must be undertaken simultaneously throughout that human’s life in order to gain full maturity as a person. One path is overcoming oneself and the other path is growing beyond oneself. We know we are on the correct paths when we realize that we are between both. Each of us is the bridge between these two paths to becoming a person. Just think of the decisions we make for personal development; decisions for work and career; decisions for friendships, partners, spouses; decisions for physical and mental health. All those choices we make to not only overcome challenges but, hopefully, to realize happiness as a person. Secondly, there is the matter of growing beyond ourselves into the communities in which we participate; participation in family, in faith communities, in political and social communities, in ways of sustaining our common home Earth, and all the rest.
This double pathway that each one of us is on means that we are all too often between our overcoming of self and our growing beyond self. Very likely, we have found ourselves searching for the map that shows us the way, that directs us in our best decisions. Surely, we think, there is an app for this full, mature person thing!
Well, here’s the kicker. It is Bonhoeffer’s point, but much more importantly it is the Creator’s point that framed the earthbound life of Jesus, this baby in the cradle. The kicker is – we are free to walk these paths of overcoming and growing – or not. In being in between I am free. As Bonhoeffer puts it, “Each person is cradled in freedom.” (Act and Being, p.48)
It seems to me this is exactly the journey of the fully human Jesus. We share humanity with him by this freedom. There is a line in the hymn, “Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light” which says, “This child, this little helpless boy, shall be our confidence and joy.” Jesus is our confidence and joy not because by some magic this baby – as baby – is the source. Jesus is the one who, as with all humans, will become a person by overcoming and growing beyond. In this we find confidence and joy.The arc of Jesus’ life, his human life, encompasses this same overcoming and growing beyond. He, too, experienced being between self and community on the way to becoming a fully mature person. He, too, was cradled in freedom. This is the Christmas gift that reveals humanity in divinity as well as divinity in humanity. The absolutely free Creator and the eternally free human person become one in making peace not only possible, but real.
The arc of Jesus’ life, as we know very well, reveals that between cradle and cross there exists much love, service, and personal care for one another. Scripture recounts how the angels’ song of “Glory in the Highest” goes quiet over the years, one might say, because Jesus had his own confrontations with stubbornness, abandonment by friends, and became the target of murderous violence. Confidence and joy are truly hard-won assurances.
This Christmas, as too much war is the scourge of too many people, we find ourselves once again in between overcoming and growing beyond. We work to overcome small-minded judgments to deepen our resolve to be ministers of reconciliation. And we commit to growing beyond barriers whether self-imposed or institutional in order to make real peace. May we pray for and commit to freedom in the push and pull, the doubts and the 2nd guesses of finding ourselves in between. Jesus, human like us, freely chose to be born, to love, to teach, to suffer, to die. Between the cradle and the cross Jesus lived a full life. This Christmas-Epiphany Season may we share in that full life which leads always to New Life of Resurrection as we sing in the Carol, “What Child is this? ….. Let loving hearts enthrone him.”
Taken from the Festival of Lessons & Carols’ Bidding Prayer
The Bidding Prayer
Leader: Sisters and brothers, this Christmas Eve let our care and delight be to hear again the message of the angels; in heart and mind to go to Bethlehem and see that which comes to pass; to the Babe lying in a manger. Now we read Holy Scripture—the history of our salvation; we sing carols of joyful sounds to our God.
All: But first we pray for the needs of all the world, for peace and good will over all earth, for unity and companionship among all God’s people. And because this of all things would rejoice the Creator let us at this time remember the poor and the helpless, the cold, the hungry, the oppressed, the sick in body and in mind and them that mourn, the lonely and the unloved, the aged and the little children, all who don’t know Christ or who by sin have grieved his heart of love.
Leader: Lastly we remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light, that multitude whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom in Jesus we forevermore are one.
All: These prayers and praises we offer through the Incarnate One whose gift is everlasting life.