This year particularly, I am deeply touched by the story of how God chose to come into the world as the Incarnation. A child born to a mother who may have been fifteen years old, from a family whose name is not remembered today, and probably wasn’t then. A child born to a father who wasn’t the biological father, but who agreed to be a stand-in – not just for the birth but throughout the boy’s life. Joseph and Mary were a couple who were forced to travel halfway across the country from their home in the north to the tiny village of Bethlehem in order to be “registered,” which is where the birth took place, and which was yet another life-numbing example of Roman oppression. And not two weeks later they were warned to flee to Egypt, this time to escape the vengeful forces of religious oppression.
From every earthly angle, be it political, economic or sociological, this story is about the contrast between political, military and religious power – and powerlessness. God chose to come into the world inside a story that was as powerless as any storyteller could dream up.
And yet. The vulnerability of the child, the anonymity and powerlessness of his parents – has given rise to a measure of hope and promise of peace that has transformed millions of lives and has changed the course of human history. Yes, one needs to acknowledge that over the centuries the expressions of hope and peace under the Christian banner have occasionally produced raw and ruthless manifestations of power. But in nearly every case, religious repression and oppression have occurred when power has become separated from love.
As the Christmas story demonstrates, God’s love is incarnated in powerlessness. As we transition into a new year and a new wave of leadership in our country, there have been predictions, if not threats, of naked uses of power – to punish, marginalize, deport, deny, demean and ignore. As we prepare for this transition, we would do well to draw wisdom from the Christmas story, and from the biblical narrative of Jesus’ life. Not once, from his birth which we celebrate this Sunday, until his death some thirty-three years later, did Jesus try to incite violence in order to challenge the violence of repression and oppression. Not once. Rather, he used the power of love throughout his life, a power that was born in powerlessness, and which ended in another dramatic, if not gruesome, story of powerlessness. And the paradox of it all is that the powerlessness of love has had, and continues to have, a power to transform hearts and minds – with the capacity to change the course of human history.
Martin Luther King, Jr., perhaps the greatest prophet of the 20th century, understood this paradox as well as anyone:
“Power without love is reckless and abusive. Love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice; and justice at its best is power correcting anything that stands against love.”
Embrace the powerlessness and in doing so discover a deeper and more abiding power. And then use it.