The vulnerability of God

Photo: St. James Cathedral, M. Laughlin Photo: St. James Cathedral, M. Laughlin
Like the Christ Child in the manger, let down your defenses

St. Francis of Assisi responded to our Lord’s command, “Rebuild my church,” by traveling far and wide proclaiming the Gospel. During a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Francis was deeply moved by the humble circumstances of Jesus’ birth. When he returned to Italy in 1223, he organized a live Nativity scene in Greccio. Francis used the scene to communicate how, when the author of creation came to dwell among us, he came as a child utterly vulnerable and defenseless, resting in a manger — a feeding trough for animals.

We shouldn’t let the familiarity of this part of the Nativity story deprive it of its astonishing power. From the manger to the cross, Christ communicates the depth of his love through expressions of vulnerability rather than power.

Whether we’re talking about the first century or today, our Lord’s way of approaching us in vulnerability contrasts sharply with our human tendencies. Fear makes us averse to vulnerability. So does the desire to impress.

At work, our aversion to vulnerability makes us want to present ourselves in the best possible light. We want people to think we know the answer, even if we don’t. We want to avoid the blame for mistakes or bad outcomes. Though understandable, these anxieties can lead us to some pretty unproductive behavior. Failing to acknowledge that we don’t know the answer prevents us from asking the questions that help to learn the answer. Similarly, a failure to recognize when we made a mistake can damage our relationships with co-workers who know we did something wrong and want to know why we won’t just admit it.

This human tendency toward defensiveness can prove even more costly in our relationships with family and friends. The Christmas season is a great time to be together. Unfortunately, every family has problems. Real problems. We’ve done things we shouldn’t have, and this leads to hurt feelings. This is where our temptation to be self-serving can work against us.

There are situations, such as abuse and addiction, that require us to act in self-preservation to protect ourselves or the ones we love. However, there are many, many times when we compromise our relationships with those we love out of a desire to protect our self-image. Someone said something that embarrassed or upset us and now we don’t want to go to their house for a Christmas party. Or maybe we did or said something that, in our hearts, we know we shouldn’t have. Now we feel awkward going to a party because we know that the person we have wronged is going to be there.

This is where we need to take a look at the Nativity scene and follow our Lord’s example. Like the father who joyfully embraces the prodigal son before he can offer an apology, Jesus takes the initiative to restore his relationship with us without any assurance that we will respond well. That’s the only way that wrongs are made right and relationships are restored. Someone must be vulnerable, acting first without an assurance that the other party will be gracious in response.

In many ways, this is the spirit of Christmas: a willingness to approach God and one another in the same way that Jesus came to us. There is no assurance that others will respond well to our vulnerability. If we admit we don’t know an answer at work, a know-it-all colleague might give us a hard time. But he would probably do that regardless. If we apologize to a family member for something we did wrong, our apology might be rejected. We haven’t really lost anything, though. She was mad at us before and she’s mad at us now. All we lost was a little of our self-regard. We could all do with a little less of that.

In contrast, what we could gain by accepting vulnerability and doing the right thing is of great value. Genuine, honest conversations in the workplace that lead us to be better workers and colleagues. Restored relationships with those we love. Those are rewards well worth the risk.

Northwest Catholic - December 2017

Deacon Eric Paige

Deacon Eric Paige is the Archdiocese of Seattle's executive director for evangelization, formation and discipleship. Contact him at eric.paige@seattlearch.org.