Dean’s Christmas Message, 2015
O the magnitude of meekness!
Worth from worth immortal sprung;
O the strength of infant weakness,
If eternal is so young!
—Christopher Smart, “The Nativity of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ”
Christmas arrives this year at an unusually fraught time in our national and international life. We seem this season to be assaulted by distressing news on an almost daily basis. Life seems ever more fragile and at risk. Civility seems all but absent from our public discourse. We spend our days alternating between postures of anger and fear.
It is natural in times like these to want to defend ourselves and to strike back at those who either threaten our sense of security or offend our values. Our safety, we believe, resides either in our corporate and personal power or in our superior principles.
As vexing as today’s world can be, it is no more disturbed than the one into which Jesus came two millennia ago. Then, as now, the arrogant overwhelmed the meek. Then, as now, the preciousness of life seemed of no account to those bent on enmity and control. Then, as now, the answers on offer seemed to revolve around getting more—resources, power, control—with which to overwhelm those who posed a threat either in fact or imagination.
But it has always been the affirmation of the biblical tradition—from the Hebrew prophets to Jesus himself and to his earliest followers—that security resides neither in power nor money nor status. Real safety—the kind that Isaiah, Jesus, and Paul both live out and offer—consists in what might seem like a counterintuitive set of emotions.
Real security consists in trust—trust that reality is finally friendly; trust that the world is actually good; trust that God keeps promises. The One behind the world—the One who comes into it then and now at Christmas—is ultimately trustworthy. And we are finally safe.
The eighteenth century English poet Christopher Smart understood what Isaiah and Jesus and Paul proclaimed and what Jesus’s mother Mary lived out in her faithful nurture of her infant son. We normally think of and describe God as ultimate power, but such a construction gets it totally wrong. The truth is really the other way around. God is not to be seen in ultimate power. God is on view in ultimate weakness. God comes among us not as a warrior but as a baby. Our image of God is not of a mighty king but a helpless infant. Our fantasies of power are fakes. What Smart calls the “strength of infant weakness” is the real truth about God, the world, and us.
We gather in this cathedral church during the season of infant weakness to celebrate the strength and endurance of those values and virtues that Smart calls “the magnitude of meekness.” The One born at Christmas will come to stand with and for us humans in ways that will outlast the pretensions and postures of power in all its pompous self-display. The infant Jesus embraces us in his weakness, and beckons us to share that embrace around. The problems of 2015 lose their power to frighten us. We can live, with God and Jesus and our neighbors, in gratitude and trust.
May the God we meet in infant weakness bless you in the magnitude of meekness to live in hope and thanksgiving, both now and throughout the year.