John 1:1-5, 14
A favorite Advent hymn of mine is “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” written by Charles Wesley. It sings of the humanity and divinity of Christ:
Born thy people to deliver,
born a child and yet a king,
born to reign in us forever,
now thy gracious kingdom bring.
“Born a child.” Jesus was born in a certain place with a certain culture, and yet we claim his incarnation as among our own throughout God’s world. In nativity scenes images of Christ come from all different cultures—some in our collections come from Italy, South America, Guatemala, Africa, Asia, and England. The beautiful aspect of all of these is that each people group makes Jesus look like one of them. “The Word became flesh”—our flesh! Our flesh is beautiful and whole, and yet vulnerable.
We wait for the coming of Emmanuel – “God with us” – Jesus, who shows us the way of kingdom living on earth. Sometimes, though, we emphasize only the characteristics of God in Jesus: omnipotent, all-knowing, etc., and we forget the humanity, the vulnerable flesh of Jesus. We even do this to him as a baby, imagining as we sing “Away in a Manger” that he did not cry. But in John 11:35 we read, “Jesus wept,” and Philippians 2:7 explains that he “emptied himself” (NRSV).
This is holy mystery, and it is important to remember that Jesus came not as a superhuman, but became a human who is also divine—and with the mission of sharing God’s love for the world, including all creation. Theologian Tom Reynolds writes, “The notion of incarnation indicates God’s embodiment in the human condition. . . The infancy stories make the point in another way, as the divine manifests itself as a child, perhaps the most poignant metaphor of vulnerability and dependence.”
All bodies on this earth are marked by vulnerability and dependence in some way. I hesitate to equate vulnerability, especially the vulnerability experienced in infancy, with the ministry we offer in both Safe Church and Disability Concerns. As a regional disability advocate, Cara Milne writes, “We represent people in our words and attitude, so it is important we are aware of the images we portray. . . . People are burdened by language that disrespects their worth.”
For women and men and children who suffer from any form of abuse to be referred to only as “vulnerable” further disempowers their voice and experiences, and the same applies to people with disabilities. People should not be defined by words such as “disability” or “survivor/victim of abuse.” And yet, as a person who lives with cerebral palsy, I know well the specific vulnerabilities it brings.
People with disabilities, we, are less likely than our nondisabled counterparts to have a career or to marry, and more likely to live under the poverty line and to suffer harassment and exclusion. The statistics and stories are disheartening. I know I fit into these numbers somehow. And I know there is a motivation for people even to name me, others with disabilities, and persons who survive abuse as inspirational. But that is not what I am trying to convey or encourage in your response. Rather, this is about remembering there will be times when we are vulnerable because of our flesh and blood bodies—and yet that will not be all of who we are and that will not be the end of our stories.
It seems to me that we tend to apply the word “vulnerable” to Jesus mainly at the time of his birth and his death. Nancy Eisland gifted us with The Disabled God, a resurrected Christ who bears the marks of suffering on his body. There were times throughout Jesus’ life too when he was vulnerable through his relationships, his interdependency on God and others. Reynolds writes,
That Jesus embodies God’s love for humanity in vulnerability helps us move away from an individualistic hero model of Christ. Christ is no superhuman, beyond struggle, pain, or the possibility of deformation. His body was a conduit for accessibility to those who were disempowered and weak, with whom he identified. . . . He was vulnerable and made himself vulnerable, to others. This point is illustrated by Jesus’ weeping over the death of Lazarus.
Jesus, even knowing God’s gift of life could overcome death, wept. Jesus struggled in the desert and in the garden of Gethsemane. “His sweat was like drops of blood” (Luke 22:44), and he “offered up prayers . . . with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death” (Heb. 5:7). And yes, Jesus suffered and died by human hands. His flesh was marked by vulnerability. And yet the full impact of Jesus’ story is marked by love.
Through Jesus’ incarnation, God is in solidarity with us, with our beautiful and whole, vulnerable and imperfect flesh throughout different cultures and countries. Through his vulnerability as a human and his sharing God’s grace as our King, he spread the message of grace and love throughout God’s world. Through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection we are all called, by God’s grace, to be his body in the world. We are called to be in solidarity with God’s people, as we all embody the depths, vulnerabilities, and wonders of being human. May God bless our holy impatience for the coming of the one who leads us into God’s kingdom, where all belong and all live in and with respect and dignity, in our vulnerability and our beauty.
Creating and Creative God,
We praise you for being in solidarity with us
through the beautiful and vulnerable flesh of your son.
Be with us in our holy impatience as our world desperately needs your love.
Help us to love ourselves and each other as we await for the coming of your kingdom.
In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.