A Vulnerable Savior

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Throughout this season of Advent our focus is “The Story of Christmas in 20 Words.”  On each of the 20 weekday mornings ending on Christmas Eve, we’ll spotlight a single word from the Gospel accounts that helps us ponder more deeply the birth of Jesus.

12.  Child

If the Greek gods had sought therapy, they would have kept an army of family systems counselors busy for years.

According to the myths that described the origin of the Olympian deities, there was treachery, betrayal, and dysfunction from Day One. 

The universe began with an entity named Chaos – a suggestion that seems to resonate with current astrophysical speculation.  Three generations of gods and goddesses followed.  Cronos, one of the Titans, lived in fear that one of his five children would turn on him.  So he ate them.  His sixth child, Zeus, forced his father to regurgitate his siblings – whereupon he married Hera, one of his sisters.  The Olympian fathers generally mistreated their sons, who despised their fathers in return. 

Zeus had a dozen children of his own, many through secret liaisons.  In order to hide his pregnant mistress Metis from his wife, he swallowed her whole.  When it was time for the baby to be born, a fully formed woman emerged from the only place she could: Zeus’ head.  Athena arrived dressed in armor and ready to rumble – leaving Dad with a memorable headache.   

Forget the therapists.  These characters are primed for their own cable TV miniseries.

The one thing we don’t see in the myths about the origin of the Olympians is any hint of childhood.  There’s nothing humble or vulnerable about them – no diapers, first steps, or ancient equivalents of Fisher-Price toys.  Hercules is a possible exception, although he was half-human.  Even as an infant he displayed superpowers, grabbing and choking to death a couple of poisonous snakes that slithered between the slats of his crib. 

Things are different with Jesus.  Incredibly different. 

Although the Gospels describe him as divine – a claim that’s plain as day in John 1:1 – he arrives as any other human being. 

He is fragile.  He needs protection, warmth, and food to survive day to day.  In the twisted mind of King Herod, he’s on the Most Wanted List.  Unable to defend himself, he must rely on his parents to help him escape to Egypt.

Nine times in Matthew and Luke he is called “the child” or “the baby.” 

The angels told the shepherds, “You will find a baby wrapped in cloths…” The shepherds “found Mary and Joseph and the baby, who was lying in a manger…”  “They spread the word concerning what was told them about this child…” Herod said, “Go and search carefully for the child…” The Magi came to “the place where the child was…” “…they saw the child with his mother…” The angel told Joseph, “Take the child and escape to Egypt…” Later another angel told Joseph, “Take the child and go to the land of Israel…” “So he took the child…”

To grasp the strangeness of this, we need to remember that children didn’t matter in the ancient world.

They were considered unproductive and expendable.  They couldn’t think or reason.  The primary Greek and Latin words for “child” literally meant “cannot speak.” 

There is no record of a classical teacher, philosopher, or rabbi using a child as a positive illustration of spiritual growth. 

But Jesus changed all that.

“Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me” (Mark 9:37) – a statement that had no historical precedent, and that quite simply left the power-people of the ancient world scratching their heads.   Grown-ups were supposed to make things happen.  Children were the ones to whom things were supposed to happen.  Kids should want to grow up and be like King Herod, right?  But Jesus made it clear that King Herod should have wanted, in his heart of hearts, to become like a little child.

By coming into the world as a child, Jesus allows us to make a startling statement:  God is vulnerable.     

God is willing to be nursed.  To lie in a feeding trough for animals.  To be carried to safety when in danger.  To fall asleep for hours at a time. 

That never would have happened on Mt. Olympus.

But that’s OK.

All we’ve ever needed is to know the With-Us God, who even knows what it’s like to be a child.