The emptiness of the manger
The Johannine account of God’s incarnation is an endless source of wonder: “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”
In telling us the story of God becoming one like us—the event we are commemorating this Christmas—the beloved disciple did not say “The Word was made flesh, and forgave us our sins,” or “… and showed us what is right and wrong,” or “… and preached before us.” Not even “… and showed us His power.” All of which could have been just fine, and He would have had every right and reason to do so.
But no: The first act of God was to dwell among us. In the original Greek language in which it was written, it even meant, literally, that He pitched tent with us. Indeed, His whole life on earth, with us, is more than anything else one of dwelling. God’s first instinct is simply that—to be with us, to be one like us, to be among us. He was not interested in showing us who’s the boss, nor was He primarily motivated by a desire to solve our problems, or driven by a need to preach before us what is right and what is wrong.
God did not come as a boss, as a problem-solver, or as a preacher. He came to be with us. Showing who’s the boss, solving our problems, preaching before us—all presume superiority, but preclude solidarity. Our God is first and foremost a God of friendship, of companionship, of solidarity.
Isn’t that also the case between friends? When friends finally meet after many years of not having seen each other, isn’t the first instinct one of joy and anticipation, no matter how one’s friend may have made a mess out of his life, or a fool of himself, and probably could benefit from some friendly advice, if not even fraternal correction? No, the first instinct of a friend is to be filled with joy and anticipation at the thought of being with the other. Everything else is secondary.
God’s ways are not our ways, His priorities not our priorities, His instincts not our instincts. If we are to assume the way God sees things, politics and ethics are to come later. Before politics and ethics we must simply be with our friends, nonjudgmental and fully open to the other. Indeed, all politics and ethics must proceed from the instinct of being with and among others, and becoming one like them.
When we consider our contemporary human condition, it is not hard to see that much of what ails us and pushes us to the brink of mutual destruction comes from this unquestioned compulsion to rush ahead, armed with our political agenda or ethical and moral certitudes, and to solve other people’s problems.
We are often so sure of the solution to other people’s problems, so certain of what is the right thing for them to do, that we are compelled to impose these on others, and almost always by way of violence. Fundamentalism, after all, is not a monopoly of religious fanatics.
Wasn’t it the scribes and the Pharisees who were obsessed with rules and laws, with power—that is to say, with ethics and politics—but without any real desire to simply be with others, and listen to them? And wasn’t it Jesus who spent much of His time instead by simply being with others, lingering with them at table (no matter their supposed ill repute), being with them in joy as in sorrow? He did not prejudge people. That is why He scandalized others—mostly the self-righteous—for what appeared to them as His predilection for people of ill repute: tax collectors, people who liked to drink, people who committed adultery, sinners all.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that His first miracle happened during a wedding banquet, when He turned water into wine, thus preventing what could have been a spoiler of an otherwise happy occasion. So, too, was it perhaps no coincidence that His last moment of togetherness with his friends was at table, where they broke bread and shared wine, an event that He even carefully prepared for and looked forward to with joyful anticipation.
All politics and ethics must proceed from, be founded on and be shaped by solidarity, of being-with and letting the other be. For instance, international efforts at addressing the migration crisis, in Europe and elsewhere, as well as mitigating the effects of climate change, especially on the most marginalized and vulnerable among us—however necessary and urgent they are—perhaps in the end may lead to nowhere unless there is a genuine willingness to first listen to those most adversely affected. It must be clear to those who wish to extend help that they are proceeding, not from a position of superiority, but rather of solidarity.
Would that apart from global summits and international conferences and workshops, important and necessary though they are, leaders also devoted time to just being with people and communities at the peripheries of society. Would that politicians also spent as much time listening to their people as delivering speeches about what they can do for them.
Some 20 years ago, Bill McGarry, SJ, then my rector at the Arrupe International Residence, gave me this advice: “Remmon, when you find yourself in a new place, shut your mouth for at least a year.” When God became like us, He shut His mouth not only for a year, but for 30 years.
There is much for us to learn from the Child who lies in the manger. There we find the God who completely set aside His Godly nature, totally “emptying Himself … taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of human beings.” Against the backdrop of a world full of egos, the Child in the manger invites us to discover where our real fullness lies.
It lies in emptiness, in God’s emptying of Himself. Solidarity requires this emptying of oneself. In the emptiness of the manger, God manifested His desire to dwell with us, that our life might be full.
Remmon E. Barbaza is with the Department of Philosophy, Ateneo de Manila University.
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