Undeserving, unremarkable, unreliable, beloved

My social media feed is well-stocked with babies. I have my favorites: That one little girl with the amazing dark eyes and bounteous curly hair; that extra squashy toddler whose face is so ridiculously expressive; and of course my own children, who are sweeter, cuter, and more delicious to look upon then all the rest of humankind put together and then tripled.

What I really enjoy, though, is boring pictures of boring kids. I like seeing that one kid (or forty-six kids, for all I know. I can’t tell them apart, because there’s nothing remarkable about them) with the light brown hair and the kind of dull expression, doing things like sitting at a table with a plastic plate of eggs, propped up in a swing his eyes half-closed, or maybe holding a toy truck in one hand and another toy truck in the other hand.

“Little man really loves his eggs!” the proud mom will gush, adding a couple of smiling emoticons with hearts instead of eyeballs. “Connor is crazy about playing trucks! Love him so much [heart heart heart heart heart].”

These really are some of my favorite posts, because it makes me happy to remember that there are so many ordinary, unremarkable children in the world who are cherished, doted on, lavished with affection just because they exist. They are not adored because they learned to speak at an early age or because they smell better than most children. They haven’t earned their parents’ love because they are especially clever or easy to care for, or because they show early promise for a lucrative career in show business. They are beloved simply because they are children; and, when all is well, parents love their own children better than they love anyone else. They are beloved simply because they exist.

In an increasingly utilitarian society, where we are told to value people who are useful and kill people who are not, it is refreshing down to my very soul to see so much love lavished on such ordinary children.

I thought of this during the Mass of the Epiphany, as our pastor reminded us that the magi prostrated themselves before the infant Jesus. The typical nativity scene shows the wise men visiting the Holy Family in the stable where Jesus was born. More likely, Joseph had found more comfortable housing by the time the magi turned up; but either way, whether it was the foul, smelly hay of the stable or the undoubtedly rough and rustic floor of the house of a poor carpenter, those stately, high-born international guests, who had been welcomed by Herod himself, prostrated themselves on it – abased themselves – lay themselves down in utter, abandoned adoration before the child who was anything but ordinary.

“And then,” our pastor reminded us, “Jesus did the same for us.” First by making Himself an infinitesimal one-celled human in one of Mary’s fallopian tubes; by being born into that dark, smelly stable (and the dark, smelly, finite, fallen world of humans in general); by allowing Himself to be publicly executed like a criminal; by allowing Himself to be present in that flat, white, unremarkable consecrated host.

Odd for the magi to know enough to prostrate themselves, in their jewels and flowing robes, before the seemingly unremarkable but truly extraordinary son of Mary; odder still, odd times a billion, for that Son to prostrate Himself for us, who are truly unremarkable.

Why? Why would He do this?

Because, to Him, every last one of us is that child who is unlike any other child. Each one of us is cherished like the “little man” who is adorable just because he enjoys eating eggs, or sweet beyond compare just because he has learned to blow kisses, like billions of other babies. To Christ, each of us is that special one, that cherished child, that singularly beloved one who makes his parent’s heart swell with affection.

He dotes on us just because we exist.  We are not beloved of God because we learn quickly or because we perform better than, for instance, the angels. We haven’t earned our Father’s love because we are especially clever or easy to care for, or because we can ever possibly do anything for God.

We are beloved simply because we are His children; and God loves each of His children as if they were His only child. He would have gone to these mind-bogglingly extraordinary lengths for any single one of us, even if we were the only person in the universe.

If you don’t believe me, then ask yourself this: Does the alternative make any more sense? Does it seem more true to say, “God would have been willing to undergo the immense weirdness of the Incarnation, and the profound suffering and agony of the crucifixion, but only if it was for a whole lot of people. He would only do it for billions of people. Not millions. Or maybe he would do it for millions, but not thousands, or hundreds. Well, maybe he would do it for a hundred people, but never for just one.

“Never just for me.”

Oh, really? Let me tell you, it doesn’t make any sense for Him to do it in the first place, not even for quadrillions or quintillions of unremarkable human souls. There would be no reason for God to go that trouble, no matter how many souls there were. So long as we’re willing to believe He’s going to behave so strangely, and subsume His infinite glory into some “itty bitty living space” for a world full of souls, then why not go whole hog and make no sense at all? Why not go ahead and do that for one, single, stinking person, like me?

It doesn’t make sense. It’s not efficient. It’s not rational. The only reason you’d do it is for love; and love only means anything if it’s between two people.

And who are those two people? Him and me. And Him and you, and you, and you, and every single last stinking, undeserving, inadequate, unreliable, unremarkable one of us, one by one, with His whole heart. I am ordinary, and so are you. I am unremarkable, and so are you. We like scrambled eggs, and we enjoy playing with our trucks. There is nothing special about us – nothing, except that we are beloved of God, individually, distinctly, intentionally, profoundly.

***
This essay was first published in The Catholic Weekly in 2017

Can we endure the light?

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There was a man who could read people’s souls, and he would sometimes deliver messages from God.

It sounds fishy, but if you saw his face, especially his eyes, you’d believe it. For some reason, he visited my house when I was a teenager. When I came in the room, his dark eyes pooled with pity, and he asked, “Is there anything you would like to ask?” There wasn’t. I was on an ugly, dire path, and I knew it, but I wasn’t ready to turn around yet. So I walked out of the room. Fled, really. I could see that he was very close to God, and I couldn’t stand being that close to him.

It is not enough, you see, to recognize the presence of God. You can identify holiness, but it won’t do you any good if you’ve been living in a way that doesn’t prepare you to endure it.

Herod, for instance, recognized the Christ. Or at least he was well-versed enough in scripture to know that something big was coming, something that could change the world. But when he found Him, his whole thought was to extinguish that light, because it was a threat. Not to be endured.

Herod was a brilliant, powerful, and exceptionally brutal tyrant, who protected his throne by killing everyone who might someday threaten it, including his wife, two of his sons, his wife’s grandfather, her brother, and her mother. You cannot live that way and then suddenly rejoice when your savior comes. You don’t want a savior, when you live that way. It’s not that you don’t recognize salvation; it’s that you hate it.

The magi, on the other hand, also found and identified the Child Jesus, and had (what an understatement!) a different response. Before they ever appeared in the Gospel, they had spent years studying scripture and anticipating the arrival of the Savior. But their studies clearly brought them beyond some academic knowledge of the coming king. Isaiah spoke of glory and brilliance, a “Hero God” — and yet when the magi found Him in Bethlehem, just another poor baby Jew, they still knew who He was — and they rejoiced, and adored, and gloried in His light.

It’s not enough to identify God when you find Him. It won’t do you any good unless you’ve been living in a way that makes you ready to want salvation.

Several years ago, I had a little glimpse of Jesus. He was in the form of another man, someone who served God with every moment of his life. When I walked into the room, he was on his knees on the floor, binding the ankle of a boy who had hurt his foot. The boy was not grateful, not at all. He sulked and pitied himself, but the man radiated love. His posture was a living expression of love. The room shone.

This time, when I saw holiness, I didn’t run away. I stayed and watched, because the light of charity that shone in that room had something to say to me: “Be like this.”

In the first reading at the Mass of the Epiphany, Isaiah says:

Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come,
the glory of the Lord shines upon you.

Nations shall walk by your light,
and kings by your shining radiance.

This is a light that may reveal all kinds of things. It’s not enough for those “nations” (and we are the nations) to recognize and identify God. It’s not enough to be able to realize what holiness is when we see it.

How are we preparing, before that light appears? The magi knew it was coming, and they prepared themselves to welcome and adore it. Herod knew it was coming, and he made plans to extinguish it. Herod acted like exactly like Herod when His savior appeared, and so will we act exactly like ourselves when we meet God.

Just being in His light will not be enough. If we live like Herod, we will respond to Him like Herod, with fear, with loathing. We will see the light, and we will want to put it out.

When the glory of the Lord comes to shine upon you, what will that light reveal?

***

Image: “Epiphany” by Gallardoblend via Deviantart
This essay was originally published on Aleteia in January of 2016.

Epiphany, you’re on your own.

“Keep that tree up until Epiphany!” they keep saying. “It’s still Christmas, you know! Don’t take down that tree yet!” they keep saying. They are imagining something like this:

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(Photo Credit Anthea Sieveking , Wellcome Images)

O, Holy Night!

Whereas what hulks in our living room is more along these lines:

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Oh, holy crap.

Epiphany, you’re on your own.