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by Tom Boogaart
In late November my wife Judy and I took our three young granddaughters on a walk, and we passed by a crèche that had been set up in a park near our cottage. It consisted of large, illuminated plastic figures of Mary, Joseph, shepherds, and wise men along with a donkey and a lamb.
All these figures were looking at the manger in which lay a sandy-blond baby Jesus. My thoughts started to drift in the direction of everything that was wrong with this crèche—the inaccuracy of the wise men being present and of the sandy-blond baby Jesus—but my granddaughters interrupted them by asking us who everyone was.
Unexpectedly, we had an opportunity for retelling the Christmas story. The girls were fascinated by it and were especially intrigued by the baby Jesus.
After she had heard the story, my middle granddaughter asked: “How could God be a baby?” Her question arrested me, and my thoughts drifted off in a new direction.
Indeed, how could God be a baby? My granddaughter was pondering the mystery of the incarnation. We adults are quick to affirm that Jesus was fully human and divine, but we are slow to ponder the implications this affirmation.
Jesus, the Word by which the world was created, came into it as a baby, vulnerable and dependent. Baby Jesus needed to feed at Mary’s breast lest he die. He needed to have his diapers changed, those bands of cloth with which he was swaddled. He cried for attention when he was discomforted, hardly the “little lord Jesus no crying he made.” He needed to learn how to walk and to talk. He endured attacks on his life, starting with Herod and continuing with the very people he came to save. He was wounded in his hands, feet, and side, and he died of his wounds. In his resurrection, Jesus carried these wounds into heaven, and his broken and disabled body was taken up into the Godhead.
We have no words to explain adequately the full reality of the incarnation. Our theological system has a few loose threads, and when we pull on them the seams in the system start to unravel. The incarnation is a mystery we say, but a lack of explanation makes us anxious and tense. Is it any wonder that many of us in the Reformed tradition resolve this tension by tending toward versions of Docetism—Jesus only appearing to be human?
I have only recently become aware of how important the vulnerable and wounded Jesus has become to people with disabilities. In the past few decades, they have begun to raise their voices and challenge the theology and practices of a church that has all too often reduced them to objects of charity and pushed them to the margins of the community. They point out that the Bible provides a number of images of God ranging from the All-powerful One to the Vulnerable One and that the western church has prioritized the former over the latter to the detriment of all.
The western church has become fascinated with the power and abilities of God and thus with the same abilities in humans, God’s image-bearers. To be fully human is to be fully able: active, productive, and self-sufficient. Such a theology hides the reality that all humans are only “temporarily abled,” leads to practices that inevitably push people with disabilities to the margins, and ignores their theological contributions, among them their insights into what it may mean for God to become vulnerable and dependent in the person of Jesus.
My granddaughter stood by the crèche taking it all in. Even in this kitsch setting, the plastic Jesus in the plastic manger seemed small and vulnerable. She asked about his Mommy and Daddy and whether they would take care of him. I answered, “Yes, they are right there by his side,” and my thoughts drifted away again. I began to imagine all the times in which the arms of Mary and Joseph would reach out to Jesus in order to hold him, comfort him, and protect him. I imagined all the times in which Jesus’ arms would reach out and lovingly hold them. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in mutual embrace, all needing and loving each other.
I began to get a slightly different take on the Christmas story. Could it be that God became vulnerable in Jesus to manifest for us the true nature of our life together, the true meaning of Immanuel, God with us? The Christmas story is about mutual vulnerability and mutual embrace, a story that people with disabilities know so well.
Tom Boogaart teaches Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.