When the Wonderful Inspires Wonder

God’s sign is the baby. God’s sign is that he makes himself small for us. This is how he reigns. He does not come with power and outward splendour. He comes as a baby – defenseless and in need of our help. He does not want to overwhelm us with his strength. He takes away our fear of his greatness. He asks for our love: so he makes himself a child. He wants nothing other from us than our love, through which we spontaneously learn to enter into his feelings, his thoughts and his will – we learn to live with him and to practice with him that humility of renunciation that belongs to the very essence of love. God made himself small so that we could understand him, welcome him, and love him.   ~Benedict XVI

 

These words from Pope Benedict XVI appear in the Magnificat for Christmas day 2013. God takes flesh in Mary through the Holy Spirit and is born in Bethlehem – an infant, weak, helpless, Wonderful.

Often for us, like the Israelites, we expect God to come with power and signs. We place our demands and make our lists, and throughout this process driven by pride and fear, our sense of wonder diminishes. In fact, wonder before the Mystery – an encounter with something truly mysterious in this age of Googling, Siri, and how-to guides for every dummy under the sun – has all but disappeared from the man once considered a religious being, and now a worshipper of his own apparent autonomy.

However, in my adult life (one filled with a wife and three children), I know of at least one event that can provoke a sense of wonder in even the hardest of hearts: the presence of a child.

Countless times I have been in a room full of chattering adults when my wife walks in with the latest arrival – everything stops and silent staring ensues. The infant is rather unremarkable – usually sleeping.

In almost all other real-life circumstances (in other words, silently watching pictures move about a screen doesn’t count), silence amongst that many adults would either result from angst at some ominous problem, or, the more likely, awkward situation that renders individuals speechless. While these instances happen rarely, on a far more frequent basis, the infant child lacking outward splendor, the infant child defenseless and in need of help, contains in him/herself the capacity to inspire wonder in grown adults (many of whom have seen babies before), rendering them speechless. They simply gaze at the child, expecting nothing but everything – their desire open to the Infinite.

The mere presence of a child causes one to stop in his tracks, to re-think his approach to the day, and to beg for mercy at having forgotten what it means to love and to be loved.

Christmas invites us to behold the child Jesus. The Wonderful, the Christ-child, invites us to an experience of wonder and awe. The child, Emmanuel, causes us to stop, and to contemplate, and to listen. Christ is a presence capable, even today, of becoming event for my life.

Jesus comes, not with a dangerous display of “earthly power.” He comes, not inspiring the fear of all. Instead He comes as a baby and invites us to hold Him close – and to love Him. Indeed, dominion rests upon this child born for us, and we call Him Wonder, Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, and the Prince of Peace (see Isaiah 9).

And, just as a room full of too-busy-to-stop-working-for-a-minute adults stops, speechless in the wonderful sight of an infant, this God-man causes us to pause and look on in wonder and awe at a sight so small it has been and will be overlooked by many. Yet only in this wonderfully small encounter does man discover who he is, and reminded of his destiny – this is truly the Christian event.

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Only wonder leads to knowledge…Wonder comes before all categories; it is what leads me to seek, to open myself up; it is what makes the answer – not a verbal or conceptual answer – possible for me. If wonder opens me up as a question, the only response is the encounter, and only with the encounter is my thirst quenched. And with nothing else is it quenched more.   ~Pope Francis

Why We Need the Self-Awareness of a Three-Year-Old

**Note:  This article first appeared on the Being Catholic blog on Dec. 22, 2012.

“This says it is from the North Pole.  Do we know anyone at the North Pole?”

Our daughter didn’t even have to answer the question with words.

Instead, I watched all of the energy in her body move to her face, thus producing a massive baby-toothed grin.  But her face could not contain her joy.  She threw her arms jerkily in the air and let out several excited shrieks, while engaging in a series of unrhythmic dances.

Her anticipation for the coming of Santa, which leads to her wake up early every morning and ask if it is Christmas, conjures up memories of my childhood past – the incredibly long day that was Christmas Eve, the “sleepless” night that gave way to Christmas morning, and the host of toys that appeared in our living room.

It’s as if I can look back at the first portion of my childhood and the whole thing is on Repeat.  Every year was the same thing – the same feelings, the same anticipation, and the same result – toys.  Why did it never get old?  Why doesn’t Santa get old for the child?

Though I probably didn’t cognitively arrive at this conclusion as a child, I can confidently say that Santa was ever- new to me each year, because I knew that I needed something new.  I needed new toys, because the ones from the previous year were either broken or out-of-fashion, or boring.

What about Christmas now?  Is it not, perhaps, boring?  Isn’t it monotonous?

After all, the Church proposes it every year.

Is the Pope just too lazy to come up with a more modern holiday?

This leads into my question this Advent:  How can Christmas become new and filled with anticipation like it was in my childhood?

 

The Church’s Response to My “Accusation” (i.e. The same accusation we toss at the Mass, forms of prayer, etc.)

The Church is wise.  She proposes – each year – exactly what will provoke us.

She knows that if we are seriously honest with ourselves and look deep into the whole of our lives, there is serious need.  There are parts of our lives that lack answers, or lack healing, or lack peace, or lack virtue.  And, our energetic pursuits, our best devices, our best resolutions, our self-help guides, pragmatism, and Pelagianism cannot find a suitable answer or solution.

The self-awareness of a child said, “I need new toys to be satisfied.”  The self-awareness of the childlike adult says, “I need to be converted; I need a Savior – in order to be made new and be satisfied.”

In short, we needed Santa to bring us new toys, and we need Jesus to bring us new life. 

This sort of self-awareness is perhaps the first step on the road to recovering the deep sense of anticipation and expectant waiting that Advent is all about.  And, just like the child knows his need and is open to being surprised on Christmas morning, we too must not only recognize our need, but open our minds and hearts to being surprised by God’s action.  This requires surrendering unfruitful ways of doing things, our desire for control, our cynicism, dullness, and even our attempts to box God into the image that we make of Him.

Christmas is all about my need, my anticipation and longing crashing into or being surprised by a God who surprised the world and changed everything in the process.

“See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? In the wilderness I make a way, in the wasteland, rivers” (Is. 43:19).

Letus approach Christmas this year with a childlike self-awareness, one that understands just how needy we really are, and that we don’t have all of the answers.  Indeed, most of the world thinks this whole Christmas thing (aka. The Incarnation) is folly and fails to perceive it.  And, in fact, the world always has failed to see it – ever since that first Christmas morn.

But, unlike the world blinded by its own pursuits, we, like children awaiting Christmas morning for the sake of toys, await the coming of our savior, Messiah, and Lord.  We await Christ, who makes all things new (see Rev. 21:5) – the only one who makes life new if we let Him.

It is in the awareness of our need, and the fearlessness of our need that we are made new.

This is why Christmas is not monotonous, and why when we receive news that is over 2000 years old, we should hardly be able to contain ourselves as well.  For these are the words spoken to each needy heart again this year:

“Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is the Messiah and Lord” (Lk 2:10-11).

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