The following was written for the Godspace blog, as part of their Advent series on ‘Who is this child?’
visual journalling page from Kate Kennington Steer
I was unable to have children of my own, so holding my nephews, niece and friends’ children over the years has been such a precious bittersweet joy. As time has gone on my grief for myself has largely healed, so that now not every beautifully taut swollen pregnant belly automatically makes me want to cry or propels me from the room. Yet I wonder if there is something about God I will never be able to understand because I am not a parent.
Yet does that necessarily mean that ‘birthing God’ is reduced to being merely a metaphorical spiritual idea? Christians believe God reentered the physical universe by being born as a child. The wonder of that sentence is incalculable. The material laws of the cosmos changed when God’s matter transformed into human flesh. It sounds far fetched I admit. The stuff myths are made of. But if I let the reality of this wonder incarnate in me, surely nothing will ever be impossible again. And that includes what God might want to do, in my life, with my life; how God might want to use me to draw the kingdom of heaven near – now.
However, before that possibility can take root within me, I come to a screeching mental halt: I often struggle hugely with an abiding sense that I am somehow intrinsically unloveable. Intellectually, I know this cannot be true; the love my family and friends show to me gives me practical evidence that this is not truth. Theologically, I absolutely reject the medieval concept of original sin; the experience of holding a new born child convinces me that I too, cannot have been born with that dark baggage. The whole story of Advent reminds me time and again that God has come and is coming into the world, precisely to eliminate that lie of separation.
Sometimes, I so wish I could hold the Christ child in my arms, maybe then I would see in that child the miracle of God wanting to be brought to birth in this very specific way; maybe then I would believe I too am a child of God who is intimately loved and loveable; that God wants me to birth the Beloved into the world around me – now. (And I hear Jesus whisper, “Blessed are those who do not see and yet believe”.)
Despite all the images that surround me at Christmas in the western northern hemisphere there is absolutely nothing sentimental about this birth of Love into Love’s world. God’s birthing continues to be a hard joy, a jagged light, as so many women will testify. There is always an element of danger in birthing no matter how we wrap it up in technology. So too then, I shouldn’t be surprised if God’s birthing in me is hard labour, long and slow in coming, requiring plenty of extensive preparation, and then demanding a long moment of absolute surrender to the process. God asks me to relinquish all my attempts at control to render myself absolutely vulnerable, just as God made the God-self vulnerable to come as a child – by choice. The risks were huge.
But sometimes I hear myself cry, “Lord, does the process have to be quite so long and so hard?”
Just as the Christ-child is made and born vulnerable in flesh, the God-child my Creator makes and bears in me is just as vulnerable in spirit. The risks are huge for this birthing too; not least that I will allow grief to harden into embittered defensiveness, or allow depression to cripple me by convincing me I am utterly alone, or allow chronic ill health to shrink my world so that I no longer seek opportunities for connecting with others or for exercising my creativity. Because even all God’s power did not, and does not, make God invulnerable. God is joyful when I am joyful but equally, God is wounded when I am wounded, because that is the exactly the miracle of the incarnation which is encapsulated in the name Emmanuel: God with us.
In The Dark Night of the Soul psychologist Gerald May takes this idea further, as he reflects on Teresa of Avila’s contemplative vision of ‘the Holy One’s being surrendered to us in love and needing us to love, to be loved by, and to manifest God’s love in the world’. He continues:
Theologically, if God is all-loving – if God is Love – then that love must necessarily temper God’s omnipotence. Love always transforms power, making it something softer, deeper, and richer. Conversely, it may only be in our vulnerability, in or actually being wounded, that love gains its full power. Thus true omnipotence may not be found in a distant and separate power over something or someone, but rather in the intimate experience of being wounded for and with. (197; original emphasis)
God was wounded for me, God is being wounded for me, God is being wounded with me. Out of all the murk of my muddy soul, this feels like the beginnings of a revelation. I may not be a parent but perhaps my experiences of being made vulnerable physically, mentally and spiritually by chronic ill health brings its particular understandings of God’s character with it too. Perhaps me becoming a host-space for God, a Light-bearer, is perhaps not out of the question either.
Perhaps by embracing my vulnerability is how, finally, I learn to live loved.