Tuesday, December 8, 2020

The power of weakness

I hate being weak. I hate being vulnerable, insecure, getting sick, needing help. I hate getting angry, scared, moody, not having all the information, and not being in control of outcomes. No, I don't like being weak. Who does?

So the really stunning thing about the Christian God is not the power and glory, but the human weakness, frailty, littleness. The Incarnation of the most high God came in the form of an absolutely dependent, powerless being: an embryo, son of a girl who was barely old enough to get pregnant, in a time when infant mortality was exponentially higher than we can get our heads around in this era of high-tech obstetrics. She wasn't married yet, and her fiancĂ© very nearly ditched her when he found out she had gotten pregnant, not by him, before the wedding. The damn Romans forced them to travel to Bethlehem --by donkey if she was lucky, or maybe on foot-- when she was 9 months pregnant; she gave birth to the baby in a stable; and then they immediately had to get up and run away to Egypt to escape another tyrant. When they came back they lived in Galilee, working-class citizens of an especially distressed province of a weak little nation under the boot-heel of a big strong empire, with all the brutality, all the brave but futile resistance, all the corrupt collaboration by both civil and religious local elites that goes along with that. 

When God decided to become human, it wasn't as a great big strong hero. Baby Jesus embodied all the weakness and precariousness of the human condition. And mother Mary, she was not just a vessel, not just a pass-through between Heaven and Earth. Mary was a partner in the Incarnation. She was given a choice, and she chose to participate. Jesus's humanity is Mary's humanity, his flesh was her flesh. Mary didn't supply muscles and weapons and armor. She gave her smallness, her weakness, her vulnerability, and her mortality, to the singular merger of Divine and Human that took place within her frail body. 

And after that encounter with Gabriel, having said "yes," what did Mary do? What would I have done? Even if I had had the humility and trust, in the presence of the angel, to say "yes," as soon as he disappeared I'm pretty sure I would have curled up, freaked out, and melted down. OMG what did I just agree to?? What am I getting into?? What will Joseph say?? How am I going to explain this to him?? He'll never understand!! Nobody's going to believe me!! I'm going to end up on the streets ... die in childbirth ... stoned to death.....  You get it. I'd be "catastrophizing." It's the control freak's answer to the inescapable reality that we are not in control.

Mary didn't do that. She didn't freak out. She went off to celebrate the event with her cousin Elizabeth, who had a new miracle pregnancy of her own. What can I learn from that? What is the essential difference between Mary's response to the Annunciation and my response to being confronted with my own smallness, weakness, and vulnerability? OK, today is the feast of the Immaculate Conception, which says that from the moment she was conceived in her own mother's womb, Mary was kept free from the burden of original sin. And what was the original sin? Eating the apple, yes, but why? What the snake tempted Eve with, in Genesis 3:5, is this: "when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods." Being free of original sin, then, is the humility to accept being merely human, and let God be God. Mary is "full of grace," as Gabriel says; she says, "I am the handmaid of the Lord." But I've been baptized, and the whole point of the sacrament of baptism is that it purifies us of original as well as personal sin, right? So can't I be full of grace enough to accept my own weakness, ignorance and vulnerability, with Mary-like uncomplicated simplicity, humility, and trust?

There is an essential mystery here, a fundamental paradox, that I am struggling to put words to. Trusting in God does not mean believing that I will be safe. It doesn't mean everything will work out fine. The essential fragility of the human condition is just what God took on in the Incarnation. Jesus was crucified! There is nothing safe about that. And yet ... it's not just that Heaven is fabulous enough that it's worth everything we go through to get there, everything Jesus went through. 

It's that a part of embracing God, of becoming united with God, is embracing my own humanity as Jesus embraced humanity. It means embracing my own and others' weakness, taking pain by the hand, looking vulnerability in the eye with compassionate love. It means embracing my neighbor's weakness and brokenness, not with strength and answers and competence so much as with my own honest vulnerability. It means taking my frailty to God in prayer, going there with my anger and fear, my fleeting enthusiasms and superficial pleasures, my hurt feelings and confusion, all my paltry, sordid self. Not trying to pretty myself up, as if I thought God was looking at the image I try to project instead of the total reality of who I really am. There's a kind of radical acceptance in Mary's example that challenges me profoundly.

God, grant me the grace to let go and let You be God, as Mary did, and to love weak humanity -- my own and my neighbor's -- as You do. Amen.

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