As my too-cute-to-be-true grandson, Master William Joseph Susil, careened around the house over Thanksgiving, exercising his rapidly expanding vocabulary and wrecking havoc on unsecured objects in his path, I couldn’t help but imagine possible futures for him: The guy who breaks Alex Rodriguez’s MLB record for career home runs? Author of the Great American Novel? Victor over Chelsea Clinton in the 2048 presidential campaign? The first American pope? (No, one shouldn’t wish that job on anyone.) Inventor of morally-sound genetic therapies? (With two M.D. parents, one of whom does big-time medical research and both of whom are gung-ho pro-lifers, that sounds reasonable enough…)
Reveries aside, William’s presence in the family these past twenty months has been a happy reminder that nothing so sweetly pulls us out of ourselves as a baby. Infants and toddlers are human magnets drawing the rusty metal of self-absorption out of the members of the species who fancy themselves grown up while leading us into the bright, sometimes frightening, but never cynical world of childhood. Which prompted a further thought: this special capacity of babies to drain the rest of us of egocentricity and cynicism helps explain why God decided to enter the world as a newborn.
Because we certainly would have done it differently, wouldn’t we? If any of us were God, I doubt we’d have chosen to be born in less-than-optimal obstetrical circumstances in a ramshackle village on the far edge of the civilized world. Indeed, were any of us God, would we have chosen to go through the normal human drill of growing up, with its seemingly endless frustrations and alarums? Why not just arrive on the scene full-grown, at the height of our divine/human powers?
That, however, is not how Emmanuel, whom Pope Benedict XVI calls the “God who has a human face,” chose to make his entrance onto the stage. By coming into the world and its history as a newborn, Emmanuel, from the beginning, begins to draw the lives he touches out of themselves and into self-giving love. Mary, Joseph, shepherds, Magi, the rest of the familiar cast of characters: they don’t know the Chalcedonian confession of “two natures in one divine person,” but they do know that this is a baby, beautiful as all babies are. And whatever the hymns of the angelic choir add by way of identifying this baby as Someone Special, the characters we place around our crèches are already being drawn out of themselves and into self-giving love by…well, by a baby.
In an interview on German television before his return home in the autumn of 2006, Pope Benedict suggested that “it’s become more difficult to believe because the world in which we find ourselves is completely made up of ourselves.” That’s a crowded place, that world in which there is only us – which, primarily, means, “only me.” A world made up of me, myself, and I – and those few others I occasionally deign to let into my “space” – is a closed and claustrophobic world. And one of the goods that’s shut out of such a world is love.
In that same interview, the Holy Father noted that “Christianity, Catholicism, isn’t a collection of prohibitions: it’s a positive option.” It’s an option for love, for that radical self-giving and receptivity in which both giver and receiver are mysteriously enhanced. It’s an option for losing oneself in order to find the truth about each of us: that our human and spiritual fulfillment comes through making ourselves into the gifts for others that our lives are to us.
Christianity isn’t about our search for God. Like its parent, Judaism, Christianity is about God’s search for us, and our learning to take the same path through history that God does. The God with a human face began the climactic portion of his salvific journey through history as a baby, calling others out of themselves as only babies can do. Every year, the crèche calls us to ponder the Law of the Gift written on the human heart by the God who is Love.